A reader left a very interesting comment on Tuesday's post about car culture. Specifically, I draw attention to this anecdote:
But, a 9-block, 10-minute walk is a long one for people used to driving everywhere, which is to say, for most Americans. So, when we have out of town guests we either have to convince people to walk, or we take the Metro one stop or, if they have a car, we take their car. On more than one occassion, we have convinced our guests to walk 9 blocks to dinner only to have them insist that we take a taxi back home.
That churned my stomach when I read it. The idea that physically able people are so unwilling to walk such a short distance really disturbs me. And yet, it doesn't really surprise me. You only need to look at the way people behave in buildings with escalators and elevators to understand why.

An escalator is an interesting device. In some places, escalators exist to connect two surfaces that would be very difficult to climb on foot, like the deepest stations in some subway systems.

(from Flickr user gilderic)

In most places, though, escalators simply connect two floors - think of the escalators at a suburban shopping mall. Most people will walk to an escalator, stand on a step, and wait for the machine to deliver them to the top or the bottom. In most cases, only a minority will use an escalator to get where they are going faster, as opposed to using an escalator to get to where they are going with less physical effort.

Elevators are much the same. I work in a downtown office building with many elevators. If I need to travel four stories or fewer, whether up or down, I take the stairs. And still, when I do use the elevator, I can hardly believe how many people use it to travel only one or two floors. These are not people who are disabled. These are not people who are carrying large boxes or pushing carts. These are perfectly physically able people who are merely going to another floor of the building. In some cases, taking the elevator actually requires more time because you have to wait for it. Most of these people would probably admit that they could use a little more exercise. In the most egregious cases, people still sweaty from having worked out in the gym get on to the elevator and travel down two floors to their cube.

To some extent, this behavior is outright ridiculous; but it's so common that almost nobody thinks twice about it. It's the stair walkers who are somehow outside of the norm. That's the power of culture. It has the ability to morph attitudes such that people start doing things that make little inherent sense; but they are convinced that they either have no other option or that the alternative is far worse than it actually is.


    People who don't walk up and down escalators are one of my pet peeves. The beauty of the escalator is that it moves fast, so speed it up, people!


    Cookbook, to that I would add that standing on an escalator is slower for me than walking up the stairs. I have tested this in settings where a bunch of people crowd onto an escaltor and I walk up the adjacent stairs. I always win.

    On April 23, 2010 rg said...

    In my office building, you cannot, apparently for security reasons, take stairs up, only down. You can open the doors from inside the stairwell but not from outside the stairwell. So, I always take the stairs down from my second floor office but always take the elevator up. Which is crazy! However, to be fair, there are federal employees in my building, so the building management probably has no choice but to set things up this way. But still.......


    I live in the Netherlands, where there are many more stairs than escalators. As I recently discovered during a bad bout of broken knee (I commute to work by train), this seriously sucks if you aren't well able bodied.

    Interesting public health question-- do you focus on escalators and elevators and run the risk the able bodied will harm themselves using them, or do you provide stairs and risk leaving behind the old and disabled?


    Beloved Snail:

    I think what's actually happened in the US is that we don't consider elevators/escalator to be public health risks at all, so nobody really thinks they're making a tradeoff.

    In certain contexts (i.e. the design of public building and transit systems), there is a big government-mandated emphasis on the needs of the mobility-impaired, pretty much without regard to negative impacts of any kind. Even so, not being able to drive is in itself a tremendous handicap, and the design-for-the-handicapped movement is really only a partial mitigation of that.


    Well, unless you're in a culture where many/most don't drive. I tend to expect, accordingly, that public transit will be easily accessible to the less able.

    On November 30, 2010 Anonymous said...

    dude, i'm doing a sociological study on this very phenomenon for college. i spent a few hours at the mall the other day just observing and recording peoples' behaviors regarding which method they'll use when all three (escalator, elevator, and stairs) are available.

    i found that most, like a huge majority that is, use the escalator. then the stairs was next with only about 15% of the people I watched, with the elevator coming in last place at 5%--of which most were handicapped people who couldn't take the other methods.

    Also, this is only a 2-story mall. My guess is that if it were 3 or more, the number of people using the elevator would sky rocket.