Sorry for the convenience

Escalator temporarily stairs!

DCist and GGW note a post from Unsuck DC Metro about old studies on converting some of Metro’s escalators to stairs.  The relevant document is available on WMATA’s website.  As anyone who’s ridden Metro regularly knows, the system has a lot of escalators and they tend to break down quite often.

Zachary Schrag notes in his great history of Metro that escalators were one of the design principles of the system – futuristic, modern stairs.  The original concept wanted to free Metro from the old conceptions of rapid transit, such as the cramped mezzanines and fare gates of legacy systems in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and others – and one idea was to completely eliminate the mezzanine and deliver passengers directly from the street to the platform.  As it turned out, mezzanines serve a rather useful purpose, so they’re in the design – but the escalators remain.

Despite Metro’s escalator issues (they cost, on average, $51,000 per escalator per year to maintain), they do indeed serve a purpose.  WMATA’s criteria for potential stair replacements only looked at stations with redundancy (i.e. where the removal of an escalator would still leave 2 operational escalators) and relatively short vertical distances (less than 30 feet – which is still a fair hike – three flights of stairs).

DCist doesn’t think those criteria were inclusive enough:

A look at the minutes from the 2006 Customer Service, Operations and Safety Committee meeting finds that Metro could save some $1.2 million in annual operating expenses by replacing escalators with stairs — you know, turning the escalators off — at some 14 Metro stations. Stations with three or more escalators were only to see one set of escalators turned into stairs (but why?), while stations with those 12 kilometer-long escalators like Tenleytown would be unaffected (but why not?).

It’s my understanding that the disabled and the elderly are advised to take Metro’s elevators and to plot their Metro routes by elevator availability whenever using Metro. So the argument that strikes me as the obvious case against stairs is mitigated. On the other hand, stairs promote health and would save the Metro system money. On the other other hand, it seems that at any given time there are a fixed number of Metro escalators that are (broken) stairs anyway.

Actually, WMATA’s criteria make a lot of sense.  First, simply turning the escalators off isn’t a viable option.  The stair heights vary and they’re actually bigger than your usual code-abiding staircase.  Plus, stairs are required to have landings every so often.   Second, that’s not a long term solution.  The shuttered escalators would still require maintenance to ensure that they don’t fall apart.

With regard to replacing those longer escalators, that’s a non-starter.  First, it most definitely would affect ridership if people were forced to walk long distances up stairs.  The shorter vertical distances that WMATA selected don’t have that issue.  Second, due to those landings and step heights, replacing longer escalators is more problematic than short ones.   Notice a station that already has stairs alongside escalators – such as Stadium-Armory – and the staircase ends up in a mini-canyon because of the different rates of rise of staircases and escalators.  For longer distances, this is a bigger problem.

Finally, escalators are faster.  They move people off the platforms faster, and given the relative congestion of many important stations, this cannot be overlooked.  You only need to look at the congestion that can happen at a busy station if the escalator is a temporary staircase for proof that they can move more people through a station faster than a staircase.

It’s too bad that WMATA didn’t act to replace a few of these escalators.  Many of the replacements would have been major improvements not just for WMATA’s bottom line, but also for the circulation patterns within stations.   My ‘home’ station, Potomac Avenue, has three escalators from the mezzanine to the platform.  One was on the list for possible replacements.  On the inbound side of the mezzanine, there are two escalators side by side.  On the outbound side, there’s one escalator and the elevator.  That lone escalator is usually moving in the direction of most commuters – that is, going down to the platform in the morning, and up to the mezzanine in the afternoon.

One annoyance of mine is to get off the train at one end of the platform, only to discover that the escalator there is running in the wrong direction, forcing passengers to walk the length of the platform and go up the other side of the mezzanine.  If that escalator were a staircase, the directionality wouldn’t matter and passenger flow through the station would be more efficient.  Several other stations could benefit from these changes as well.


One Response to “Sorry for the convenience”

  1. Three Wheeler Prams Says:

    […] Sorry for the convenience […]

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