Dear PoPville – Should DC get Rational Escalators?

Photo by PoPville flickr user Glyn Lowe Photos

Dear PoPville,

Given the steady spate of broken or out-of-order metro escalators, WMATA needs to consider evolving beyond the 1960’s and adapt to the 21st century use of modern sensor-activated escalators, like technically savvy and efficient Germany (even NYC has a few), so that the escalators aren’t operating at full speed while no one is on them, thereupon reducing the wear & tear and consequently breakage. I am well aware of America’s commitment to wasting resources and that energy conservation is emasculating, but stalled escalators are not wide enough to accommodate so many commuters when functioning as clunky, expensive, stationary metal stairs.

The liability excuse is absurd.

“WMATA participated in a study by the National Institute of Building Sciences which looked at the benefits of the intermittent operation concept. The study concluded the potential for substantial liability costs in the present litigious climate would exceed the energy savings potential and will likely preclude the adoption and use of intermittent escalators in the United States.”

Interesting. I’ve never heard of these. Anyone else ever see these before?

33 Comment

  • Europe has had these for a long time now. Litigation concerns(as noted in the op) are the reason that they haven’t caught on in DC and in the US in general.

    • Are there any specific scenarios related to litigation? Otherwise it feels like that’s just being tossed out there as a hypothetical because they don’t really care to be bothered.

      • me

        From what I understand, there could be a malfunction where the escalator would be stopped (because no one was on it), and then when a person would get on, thinking it had just become stairs, it would begin to move once the passenger was on instead of before the passenger would come up to it, thereby making the case for some sort of injury if they fell because they didn’t think it would move. Considering how the escalators tend to malfunction a lot in DC, I wouldn’t see it as a questionable occurance.

  • How about just stairs? For those whiners, they could leave the elevators at Rosslyn, Dupont, Zoo, etc.

    • For those whiners

      Or, you know, the disabled. Or children. Or people with luggage.

      • Well there are the elevators.

        • True. But the wait for those can be excruciatingly long; and besides, I’d predict that once you take people who can manage the escalator but not a flight of stairs and move them to the elevators, we’ll have that many more maintenance issues surrounding the elevators. There’s no putting a “sorry for the convenience” sign on an escalator–all those people would be forced to detour to another stop and wait on a shuttle.

          I definitely wish more stations had stairs for those of us able and willing to use them (I certainly prefer them to crowded escalators), but doing away with escalators altogether is simply not practical.

  • I actually sent an online comment to Metro back in 1999 making this suggestion after I saw these efficient elevators in a German airport. Never heard back, of course. I agree that the theoretical risk of liability is bogus.

  • Liability costs? For real??? Shouldn’t they be more concerned about the liability costs of the current escalators, which in the last couple years have shown a propensity to cave in or start moving rapidly downward?

  • They are great – all over Europe. I am not sure how some could get hurt as they start when you are a few feet away. Just an excuse to pay the man more I am sure.

    I also found this to be true in Europe hotels regarding hallway lights. They were set on a dim setting but once we step off the elevator the hallways lite up.

    Come on DC/America… are we really that selfish and stupid that this won’t work here when it does all over the world.

  • Our transportation system is probably 50 years behind other industrialized countries and tethered to soul-crushing buses. Dulles might as well be Midway and getting to BWI requires at least 2 forms of public transportation since the MARC station (no weekend service, naturally) is still a bus ride from the actual airport. It is not a shuttle. A shuttle might be more modern like an electric monorail that other airports have adopted.

    And any Amtrak travelers going south of DC have to get out of the train at Union Station while they change over to a diesel locomotive. Only thing missing is Mad Men inspired wardrobe for the conductors.

    Ray LaHood should get a passport and go see how contemporary society gets around.

    • If it were economical to remain on an Ecela or some other type of train to go farther South than D.C., then Amtrak would do it. Amtrak is already a money-losing operation subsidized by the taxpayer, and I have no qualm whatsoever with folks who wish to take it to have to go diesel.

      • The reason that it is not economical is the massive, massive tax-payer subsidization of roads and highways.

        Are you as upset about taxpayer money spent on roads as you seem to be about the relatively tiny sliver spent on Amtrack?

      • This is the most ridiculous anti-public-transportation argument. By far the biggest “money-losing” transportation system in the country is the system of interstates and roads. They’re not just ‘subsidized’ – in almost every case they are entirely funded by tax dollars.

        • You guys are absolutely ridiculous. The U.S. interstate highway system, the envy of every great industrialized nation and second only to Germany’s authobahn, has returned more than $6 in economic productivity for each $1 it cost. It is not an exaggeration, but a simple statement of fact, that the interstate highway system is an engine that has driven 40 years of unprecedented prosperity and positioned the United States to remain the world’s pre-eminent power into the 21st century.

          Even if we built train tracks to every corner of the country, people would still need to depart the train and get to their destination. In a country the size of the U.S., you still need a car.

          Imagine yourselves, for a second, living outside the urban bubble of Washington, D.C., and try to remember, for a second, what it’s like in America outside of SF, NYC, and DC.

  • How many escalator “on & offs” or “trips” per minute result in actual savings? Seems to me most of the time there is a pretty steady stream of people on our escalators. Does a 10 second shut off save money? 1 minute? And it seems a frequent start & stop mechanism would present it’s own issues with mechanical wear. How does that factor in?

    • The “pauses” probably would be longer than that at less used stations (most of which are in VA and MD, but not entirely).

      They were just starting to use the sensor type escalators when I left Korea in 2003, and I assumed that they would make it here in a couple years. Obviously I was being overly optimistic.

      • I saw my first one a few years ago in Marrakech — which isn’t the first place that comes to mind when you think “cutting-edge technology”.

  • I am well aware of America’s commitment to wasting resources and that energy conservation is emasculating

    The OP’s ridicule and condescension is sure to win over the hearts and minds of many, to be sure. Though s/he does make a point: largely speaking, governments & enterprises respond better to arguments based in terms of efficiency and cost savings, as opposed to doing the right thing just for the sake of the Earth.

  • I’ll say “sure”, because they are pretty nifty. But I doubt if most folks on here know anything about the mechanical, economic or legal implications of such escalators. Then again, if the letter writer is using Unsuck DC Metro as background material they’re probably not too concerned with making an informed and thoughtful case.

    • seems like it would make more sense to put a top over all the escalators to prevent exposure to the elements as a cost saver first.

      • The problem is much bigger than the escalators being exposed to the weather – otherwise there’d be no problems with the indoor escalators. It can’t hurt to cover them, but even once all the covers have been built, there will still be plenty of unreliability as long as Metro does not change the way it maintains the equipment.

  • I don’t buy the argument that litigation costs would outweigh energy and maintenance costs… In a recent court ruling, WMATA was deemed to be immune from many claims because it has sovereign authority, like a government body.

  • em

    I saw these at malls in India in 2008. They seemed to work pretty well, but they were also heavily signed to indicate which escalators to use to go up or down. Since Metro often switches which escalators move up vs. down vs. not at all, there would need to be some sort of highly visible and variable signage so that people didn’t end up walking down an up escalator which suddenly started moving.

  • Having seen these in Munich and Paris, I can think of two potential problems with implementing them effectively in the DC Metro system.

    First is the depth of the system compared to these other cities. With some exceptions like U Street and Chinatown, DC’s metro stations are very far below ground. I would think the escalators would be less likely to have any significant rest period to even be off, rendering the retrofits somewhat pointless. Be honest. How many times have you gotten on an escalator with no other people and been the only one on the entire time?

    Another issue I’ve seen Metro identify is the stopping and starting issue itself with an antiquated, unreliable set of escalators. When Metro escalators are running, WMATA is reluctant to turn them off, because who knows if they’ll start again? If there was money to rip out all the old escalators and replace them with new ones that incorporate the stop/start feature, I’d be all for it. But retrofitting old escalators that function very unreliably with a new feature isn’t a good idea, in my opinion.

  • I don’t buy that litigation is the problem either. But I do know that Metro is broke (literally) and those who advocate for these snazzy escalators are the same folks who’ll be the first to complain when their rates are increased yet again.

    Why does it feel that the majority of posters on this blog are so incredibly attuned to the suffering of an urban opossum yet have absolutely no clue what things cost? Throw some money at it or just “buy new things” seems to be everyone’s solution.

  • Isn’t the liability issue a question for the National Institute of Building Sciences, whose study WMATA is hiding behind as a rationale to not implement these systems?
    What are the numbers for Europe? Non-Americans are certainly much less litigious, but are there numbers for injuries caused by these automatic escalators? If injuries are high (albeit without lawsuits), that could be a legit reason to shy away from it here in Sue-merica.

  • Apparently there are sensors on some Metro escalators. Those sensors alert Metro staff when the escalators are going to break down.

    Does the entire escalator have to be replaced or can a sensor be used to power on or off the current ones?

  • Allison

    One other factor to consider… this will be yet another thing to endlessly confuse tourists.

  • The liability scenario is a red herring but there’s another big problem. It was my understanding the building codes in the DC area do not currently allow for motion-sensor escalators. That would likely have to be changed first, right?

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