Stand Left, Stand Right

Today’s Globe has a front page article by Jeff Gray (aka Dr. Gridlock) on the subject of escalator safety.

Some months ago, the TTC’s “Walk Left, Stand Right” signs vanished overnight from every escalator in the system.  This is an astonishing feat for an organization that can’t keep info about routes anywhere near current and depends on hand written signs to inform its patrons.

Why did the signs disappear?  Well, according to the escalator gods, people are not supposed to walk on escalators and the signs might encourage this dangerous behaviour.  It’s a safety issue, don’t you see?The TTC has a spotty safety record, but is quick to invoke this mantra as an excuse for bone-headed moves like this one.

What they (and the Provincial Technical Safety and Standards Authority) miss is that many stations don’t operate very well today at the best of times with all escalators running.  When one is out of service, chaos and congestion ensue.  By the way, the TSSA is the also the group responsible for elevator licences.  Remember this the next time you’re on one whose technical integrity leaves a lot to be desired.

People walk on escalators, especially in the rush hour, and the “Walk Left” signs both acknowledged reality and encouraged the less nimble among us to stand to the right.  As for stopped escalators, we are not supposed to even use them at all.

Expecting people to avoid a stopped escalator is madness on several counts, not least of which is congestion in the remaining stairways and the fact that people plan their trips around escalator locations.  They won’t walk out of their way just because an escalator is stopped, an all too common occurence.  If the TTC were serious about this idea, they would barricade off a stopped escalator, but this would likely lead to greater safety problems on the stairways.

At my home station Broadview, the main exit is via a single path from the mezzanine to the surface with an up escalator and a stairway.  The escalator is often stopped, and occasionally under repair.  When this happens, the stairway cannot handle the demand.  Sometime in the next decade, construction at Broadview will finish and there will be stairs from both the platforms up to the bus/streetcar loop.  That’s fine for people who happen to be at the east end of the trains, but most riders will encounter the existing exit first and will go up through the main, congested route.  They will use any path available, and they will “walk left” up the escalator as they have ever since it was installed.

Speaking of stairways, there were more injuries last year on those than on escalators.  Maybe we should avoid using them, or delevop a program to educate riders about stairway safety.  Maybe we should close stations and run shuttle bus services when there aren’t enough working escalators.

Heavily used stations would not be able to handle as many riders if nobody walked on the escalators, and they barely manage crowds as things are today.  Bloor-Yonge is a particular case in point along with College and to some extent King.

If the TTC plans to increase subway capacity, they will also need more escalator capacity (and/or additional exits) to get people off of the platforms quickly at major stops.

Taking away the “Walk Left, Stand Right” signs may make TTC lawyers sleep soundly (perish the thought I might sue them for encouraging my foolish behaviour), but it ignores the larger context of how subway stations actually work.

20 thoughts on “Stand Left, Stand Right

  1. Thank you for this Steve! I was wondering what happened to those signs – thank god someone is looking out for our safety 🙂 From my experience over the past little while without the signs, most TTC escalator users are still remembering the “Walk Left, Stand Right”…what a ridiculous exercise to go through the effort and expense of removing the signs.


  2. I heard an urban legend (maybe true) that the team that invented the escalator were appalled when they saw people just stand on them — their original vision was for an efficient future.

    I for one agree with this, and while it is your right to stand, if you’re on the left and I am coming, it will be very uncomfortable for you.


  3. I scratched my head on this one too Steve… it seems the TSSA safety zealots lack a good dollop of common sense and understanding of deeply conditioned human behaviour.

    CITY-TV’s Pam Seatle reported that there were 138 injuries last year on TTC escalators… of which 50 were serious enough to require a trip to the hospital!!

    Let’s see now… 50 injuries in 445M rides… is oh like 0.0001% injury rate for crying out loud… what the TTC doesn’t add is that their greatest number of system injuries… (if my memory serves me correctly) don’t come on elevators or escalators but on the stairs: people tripping, slipping, sliding, falling, pushing, lurching… OMG… maybe we need all-elevator access to the subway???? 😛

    Taken to these extremes…. as safety (and security) proponents are sometimes prone to do in promoting their cause, they end up being their own worst enemies and subject themselves to ridicule… even as they indignantly say… “You can’t have too much safety (or too much security!”

    1984’s Big Brother lives on at the TSSA and often the TTC… still trying to control and program us automatons: “Stand still, don’t walk left anymore!” “Don’t charge the doors” followed by “Ding-dong-ding”… very Pavlovian… what do you expect us to do? 😛

    Steve: The dogs drooled when the bell rang. This will be a hazard because of the slimy accumulations on car floors and platforms, and so we must eliminate the door chimes at the first opportunity.


  4. I saw that article too today. What a waste for the TTC to worry about. There are handrails on an escalator for a reason!

    For an aspect that causes injuries among 0.0000306 percent of the total TTC riders last year (rounded to 450 Million) it’s mind boggling.

    Why don’t we look at the article and ask the TTC what are they going to do with the 39 percent more injuries that happen on stairs?

    And who is this TSSA? It’s Elbonian bureaucracy at its worst…obviously none of them have ever tried to transfer from the Bloor to the Yonge lines at rushhour and you have an escalator going up in certain spots – stop on the left and you’ll get bowled over. Maybe we can send one of them to London UK and see if they can stand on the left at rush hour at a station like King’s Cross, or Oxford Circus without getting knocked over like a rugby scrum.


  5. Torontoist had an article about the sign’s removal some six months ago that might be of interest, but it’s good to finally get the official perspective. That said, I can’t believe that Dexter Collins, the TTC’s “acting superintendent of elevating devices,” calls young people whippersnappers. Wha?

    Steve: Aside from the archaic language, this reveals a typical attitude that rudeness on the TTC is the exclusive preserve of the young who don’t know any better. People of all ages rush up and down escalators because their dash for a train or bus is more important than anything else.


  6. I imagine the TTC isn’t worrying about the rate of accidents per trip, but about the possibility that 138 injuries = 138 lawsuits. There probably have been zero lawsuits so far, but one trait of managers is that they can never be too careful. Even then, this measure is lame. If you want people to stand on the escalators (and reduce your liability), put up signs telling them to stand.


  7. That the TTC has an acting “superintendent of elevating devices” is the first clue they take their escalators a little too seriously.

    I think you could easily argue that walk left/stand right is better for safety. People in a hurry aren’t going to take the stairs — climbing a moving escalator is faster — so if more people “stand left” the risk of collisions goes up, not down.

    As for what’s next, how about the “Please Move Back” stickers? Surely walking through a moving bus is unsafe, even if it lowers the risk of suffocation near the front doors. And just when is the TTC going to limit the number of passengers to the number of seatbelts?


  8. It’s important to consider the consequences of changing escalator behaviour in the TTC’s busiest stations — Yonge/Bloor is a good example.

    During rush hours at interchange stations, note what happens on the stairways when everyone stands still on escalators. The adjacent two-way stair congestion is exacerbated when trains arrive at the same time on the lower level, and more so when a train also arrives on the upper.

    Did the TTC consider the safety (and legal…) implications of this human gridlock scenario when it decided to pry off the signs?

    A more interesting question is whether people are changing their habits since the signs disappeared. Not yet, from what I can see.

    Myself, I always preferred the simplicity of London’s ‘Stand Right’ advisories on their long escalators.

    I admit to momentary left-right and east-west confusion. It often takes me a few micro-seconds to remember which is which…

    The London version instructs the moving-stairs neophyte what to do, in simple terms. Once you’ve mastered Standing on the Right, then you can figure out for yourself what to do on the Left.

    PS: Whippersnappers is a hilarious word that I still use, as it’s hard to utter without grinning.


  9. The worst part of this turn of events is that the TSSA hysteria doesn’t seem grounded in facts. These are obviously the same people that won’t let you leave Eglinton bus station directly onto Duplex Avenue. A quick internet search reveals the following general trends:

    – escalators are safer than elevators (lower injuries/rider)
    – children & people with limited mobility are at greater risk on an escalator
    – about 25 % of injuries are entrapments
    – people “doing other things” is a leading cause of accidents on escalators in the Tapei Metro Rapid Transit system. Apparently luggage is frequently a culprit in escalator accidents there.
    – about 0.06 % of fall injuries are caused by escalator (there’s a bit of extrapolation in that number)
    – walking on escalators does not increase capacity as walkers occupy two steps/person (from the Transportation Research Board – Transit Capacity and Quality of Service Manual, First Edition) although it does improve your chance of making your connection
    – up to 700 people are seriously injured or killed in non-collision injuries on buses in Israel each year

    My inner cynic wonders how many of those “elderly cruely struck down by uncaring whipersnappers” were standing on the left and how many more will be injured as a result of not leaving the left side free. There’s still going to be people running for their connection even if the escalator is full of standees. After all, if we outlaw walking only outlaws will walk.


  10. How about a disclaimer that if you want to walk on the escalator, that you do so at your own risk? At least then the responsibility is put on to the user. People can get hurt on escalators just as easily if they are not walking. What if someone claims that the ends where the moving stairs meet the stationary plates are not clearly marked for visually impaired people? And what about making the handrails yellow for visibility? These escalators are veritable death trap! They should all be shut down immediately and replaced with a big slide for going down, and low-slope walking ramps so that everyone can use them without fear of being injured for going up. If you examine every mechanical device, you can find some hazards inherent in them. They depend on common sense in their use, although it seems common sense is in dwindling supply these days because people have to be protected from every risk imaginable. (Note that I mean common sense in the normal usage, not the Mike Harris version).


  11. They should all be shut down immediately and replaced with a big slide for going down, and low-slope walking ramps so that everyone can use them without fear of being injured for going up.

    These ramps will also line up with both the Don and Humber Swan Boat service as well as with the short turned Centre Island Ferry


  12. There is only one problem with escalators – getting people to move clear of the end point (especially down to Yonge’s Bloor line platforms). People who do not clear the end point either by walking briskly or by moving off to the side are the cause of the most dangerous near-incidents on TTC escalators as people arriving behind them are trapped.

    Steve: Today, after the Pride Parade, the TTC wizards came up with another scheme to foul up travellers. First, they had BOTH escalators from the northbound mezzanine to the Bloor line running up so that everyone going down to the Bloor trains had to walk down the very crowded stairways past nearly empty escalators.

    Next, the trains stopping at Yonge did so for a normal brief station stop, closed the doors on people trying to board, and left with light standing loads. There was even a TTC Supervisor on hand to harrass people for holding the doors to get on half-empty trains.

    If instead they had kept the doors open and encouraged people to spread down the platform to several doors, and then done a controlled close on a car that had a reasonable load, people wouldn’t have been quite so ticked off.


  13. I think there are two possible fixes for the escalators:

    1) designate them “local” and “express” escalators and charge a premium fare, or

    2) interline the escalators so that when you go up the stairs at Kennedy station, you actually come down at Union, and avoid that messy transfer altogether.


  14. I recall the only time I have ever fallen on an escalator was when it was “Out of Service”.

    Maybe we should get on fixing that before we halt all movement on a working escalator.


  15. John,

    The TTC gets ≈9,000 claims a year… I’m not sure how many result in litigation, but 138 escalator claims would be about ≈1.5% of total claims… so I suspect it’s a case of overzealous interpretation of risk.


    London’s “Stand Right” Ed Drass mentions is a concise and legal way to say “Walk Left at your Own Risk”. With Toronto being so multicultural, multilingual… an argument could be made an English only warning wouldn’t meet standard of responsibility.

    Steve: Some day, we will just close the subway because it is clearly too dangerous a place to have paying customers, or possibly because there will be no room left on the station walls for basics like the station name and directions once we fill them all up with legal notices (in between the ads of course).


  16. In regards to the walk left, stand right mantra, I think there is no reason to let it go… It works well, and only really falls apart if someone does something dumb. I wonder how many more accidents might happen when the person at the top/bottom of an all standing load escalator forgets that its the end, doesn’t get off, and falls. I suspect that this scenario could cause an increase in injuries.

    As a second point, I have noticed that some escalators on the system seem narrower… I know the ones from the original Yonge line are narrower, as they were installed in the ’50s… However, the escalators at Downsview station that run up to the passenger pickup area seem very narrow as well. It may be my imagination, but it always seems harder to squeeze by on the left if someone is standing on the right than it does in other places in the system. Can anyone attest to this?? If this is indeed the case, why narrower escalators in the youngest of the Y-U-S stations?

    Steve: In one word: budgets. If projected demand is light, why build a double-width escalator?


  17. Steve said, “Some day, we will just close the subway because it is clearly too dangerous a place to have paying customers…”

    That day may be just around the corner, if the recent Doors Open at Lower Bay is any indication. I find it strange that they felt the need to park a train on each track to “prevent people from falling onto the tracks”. Did the platform actually get more crowded than some platforms on the rest of the system get during rush hours or immediately after an event. At least in those cases, falling onto the track is only a small danger when compared to the danger that trains are moving on that track.


  18. I’m not sure if this needs a cross post to my new streetcar, but it’s time for seatbelts and airbags on new equipment. While we’re at it, no more standing on moving vehicles, that’s gotta cause far more injuries than escalators!

    Also we should install platform doors to prevent injury due to falls off the platform. This will require extensive co-ordination and automation to align the train doors with the platform doors.

    While we’re at it, stairs should be designated with a direction, with fines for those that ignore the posted direction. We can’t have patrons knocking each other over on the stairs.


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