Green is Nice, Working is Better

The New York Times has an article today about a scheme in NYC to operate escalators at variable speeds.  This is intended to save energy by slowing down escalators when nobody is on them.

Despite claims by the MTA, several of the “converted” escalators either were not working at all, or were not behaving as advertised.

The nub of the issue comes right at the end of the article:

Rick O’Conor, who runs the Roosevelt Islander blog, questioned the need for the new technology. “It’s not of primary importance to have motion-activated escalators,” he said. “It’s of primary importance to have escalators that work.”

He said that all 10 escalators at the Roosevelt Island station had been out of order recently, and that his elderly mother had had to walk up the stairs. “A group of teenagers were nice enough to ask if she wanted them to carry her,” Mr. O’Conor said, adding that his mother pressed on.

Of the 10 escalators at Roosevelt Island on Monday, two had yet to be fitted with the sensors and two were shut down.

Another resident, Valentina Montecinos, 28, said, “Sure, it’s a good idea to save energy, but these escalators are never working anyway.”

Alas this is the fate of so many good ideas that bedevil transit systems and other public agencies.  In the name of some higher goal, be it the environment or fiscal responsibility, something is rolled out through an organization that is already doing a tenuous job of running their system.  The new, improved function doesn’t work and may even work less reliably than what it replaced, and “going green” takes a black eye.

Toronto has a bad habit of ignoring or downplaying the importance of a lot of things like reliable escalators and elevators.  Without these, many people can use the subway and RT only with difficulty or not at all.  We hear a lot about “safety” and the number of checks that must be made before a machine can be restarted.  The point is that if you’re going to have this technology, then it has to run reliably and staff must be available to keep it online.

Meanwhile, if anyone has some brilliant brainwaves about transit, make sure that they can actually work successfully rather than creating one more way for riders to be annoyed with poor service. 

13 thoughts on “Green is Nice, Working is Better

  1. Do you count hybrid buses in that category? Were we not told that hybrid buses use up to 50% less fuel than the average bus, but that the reality of operation in Toronto shows only a savings of 10%?

    Didn’t we also have a “power saving” escalator–back in the late 60’s? I’m thinking of the eastbound platform of Old Mill Stn. It could operate in any direction, woo-hoo.

    Steve: The hybrid buses at least work, although there were teething problems. There is supposed to be a report on bus fleet operations including comparative fuel and maintenance costs coming to the August TTC meeting. The 10% saving applies, I believe, to the initial implementations which were on fast suburban routes where the benefits of hybrid operation are comparatively low. We need to see how these buses fare on routes like Dufferin with stop-start traffic and hills.

    The escalator at Old Mill would operate in whatever direction was needed based on (a) someone stepping on a pad at the top/bottom and (b) a reasonable length of time for them to make the trip to the other end. A big problem arose from the stress that constantly starting the escalator put on the machinery.


  2. Any opinion on what is better to provide: escalators or elevators?

    I always thought it would be a good idea to convert (some?) existing escalators to regular stairs, which don’t break down and are bi-directional and more functional, as long as one (or more?) elevators are also provided?

    I know elevators are more costly to build/maintain, but how do they compare to escalators? And if we have to have elevators anyway, for 100% mobility, does it not make more sense to remove the end-of-life escalators entirely and convert them into normal stairs?

    Every day on the TTC, I see the majority of people lining up to use the escalator when they are quite capable of taking the stairs, which are usually empty.


    Steve: I hate to sound insulting, but this analysis is the sort of thing that ignores the large and growing population for whom taking stairs is not a favoured option. This ranges from the visibly frail through people whose knees are not what they once were to people with conditions that prevent them from climbing stairs. I won’t even mention people with baggage and baby carriages.

    At many locations, the distance from the platform to the street or transfer area is the equivalent of three or four floors in an ordinary house. At most stations these riders are at best served by an “up” path that is assisted, but they have to get “down” to the trains on their own.

    These people, if forced to use stairs, will clog up the flow of passengers. If forced to use the elevator, they will have to add considerably to their trip times because the elevators have limited capacity. If the elevator is broken, the station becomes inaccessible.

    There is a growing attitude which GO Transit seems to embrace that the community of accessibility challenged is small and manageable with elevators. They are getting rid of escalators with the same sort of cavalier “they can use the stairs” attitude shown here. Someone should tell GO that their customer base is going to grow and change considerably as they move to frequent all-day service (they might try reading the Metrolinx plans), and their riders won’t all be athletic freaks for whom stairs present merely one more bit of exercise in their day.

    In the interest of full disclosure, I will say that I spent time recovering from knee surgery in 2002 and although I am now fully ambulatory, that experience showed me the inherent benefit of escalators for a wide variety of riders. If you really feel that escalators are unneeded, may I direct you to stations such as Pape, York Mills or Kennedy and advise that you try walking all the way up. At Kennedy, you have the alternative of queueing for two separate elevators (platform to mezzanine, mezzanine to RT) and hoping that you can fit into the second or third trip.


  3. The Old Mill Escalator sure was fun to play with when I was 12 or 13. We also used to have quite a good time surfing down the handrails of the up escalators. The net effect of momentum and friction with the handrail moving in the opposite direction produced quite some fun. Surfing the down escalator handrails was even more fun, but required more practice.

    Not that I would advocate such dangerous and foolhardy practices. However, now that I am old I can’t be irritated with ensuing generations who let off a little steam on the subway. (Provided there is no vandalism.)


  4. Berlin had this sort of two-speed escalators. They seemed to work very well. (They also have a fully POP system, so things are obviously a little different there…)


  5. Does the wilson station north terminal still have the mechanism at the base of it to control the speed, I believe its a pad of some sort? I remember someone mentioning it last fall when the terminal was reopened briefly.


  6. Both dual speed and “on demand” escalators feature widely in most European systems with U-bahn and elevated stations, as well as at ordinary intersections where underpasses/overpasses are provided between sides of the road or the road and buildings. And of course there are major railway stations everywhere that use the technology of elevators as well as escalators for track access, often two of the former per plaform.

    In my personal experience it’s a rare installation that does not work constantly and reliably. Many transit stations also have elevators for the elderly and/or infirm, wheelchairs, those wth prams (far more of those are seen in Europe than here) and the occasional slugabed too lazy to walk. For my wife (artificial right knee and left hip) these are almost compulsory and we rarely have come across one out of service. They do have some different providers of the technology there but more often than not we recognze the names on the builder’s plates as being staples of the North American market. [It] thus would appear to be the operator’s ability to provide timely and expert service. Here, most systems are to frakking cheap to do likewise, in my opinion.

    Steve: John raises an important point that the number of people affected by some form of mobility problem is greater than the strict numbers in the population. If I am travelling with someone who can’t use the stairs, it’s little good that I could walk up or down while they’re left behind, even worse that I would have to assist in a difficult ascent or descent.


  7. It’s astonishing how unreliable the automatic doors are at the south end of Bloor/Yonge station. I would never recommend this entrance to a handicapped or elderly person. Over the years, they have been out of order for days at a time. I would be surprised if every automatic door, escalator, and elevator worked properly at the same time at arguably the most important subway station.

    Steve: Yes, for all those who argue for platform doors, just think how many of the station doors are out of service at any given time. Bluntly, I feel that platform doors are just another technology looking for a problem, and a gigantic make-work project for TTC engineering if this ever got off the ground.


  8. I believe the airport’s new Terminal 1 has two-speed escalators.

    If the escalator companies are so confident in this technology, they should be the ones to accept the risk of introducing it into a subway system. I’m thinking of something that goes beyond a typical warranty — a contract with aggressive uptime and service-call targets and backed up by hefty penalties including, ultimately, replacement with a standard model if the targets can’t be met. (Or is risk the only thing outsourcing advocates don’t want the private sector to handle?) If the premium they’d charge to provide those guarantees is more than the energy savings, then a subway system has good reason to wait for someone else to be the guinea pig.


  9. On a more serious note my knees do not cope overly well with stairs. I can manage, but much prefer an escalator. It is upsetting when the escalators are out of service and I have to climb. Heavy Parcels make it worse. I never thought I would age from the guy who ran up the stairs two at a time, but it has happened. Reliability for escalators, which is inconsistent, would be appreciated.

    Having said all that, if the compromise to get low floor is the awful Orion bus, I am prepared to climb onto buses. Even CLRVs, which have an extra step (compared to PCCs are manageable for me.) However, I do see people really struggling to get on a CLRV. It is essential, however, that whatever streetcar design we choose has fewer compromises that the current new Orions.


  10. I have seen and used the two-speed escalators at Pearson T1 and have wondered how long their operation will continue to be reliable. Time will tell if these continue to function properly, but at the same time I suspect that the pace they are put through being at the airport is not quite the same as it would in a transit facility. I suspect that they remain at one speed or the other for a longer duration than would occur at a subway station, and this might affect the longevity of components.

    As for directional-demand escalators, I don’t expect they save on operational costs and energy so much as save on the cost and space needed for two escalators. One of the features of the Scarborough RT when it first opened was that it had these at many of its installations. As a regular user of the Midland station, I often made use of this feature, even though one had to wait a bit for the escalator to stop and restart. I can’t say when, but at some point they were put in uni-directional operation, either because of mechanical problems, or because lack of use. People just don’t head for an escalator operating in the wrong direction.


  11. This escalator problem seems to go back decades because lately this entry has given me a flashback to the summer of 1986 when I was at the Union subway station when an escalator wasn’t working and a woman with a stroller said “I don’t believe this!” I’m sure that remark has been repeated billions of times ever since then. What possible sense is there in having escalators if they don’t work half the time?


  12. There is a 3-storey bookstore in the John and Richmond area that has escalators and, although I only visit about once a month, the first up escalator is out of service about half the time.

    I’ve now found the elevator.


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