In nearly every city with a subway system, you'll notice the escalators going between the station entrance and the platforms are divided – half is for people who would prefer to stand, and half is for people who'd like to walk up the escalator.
But I was recently alerted to this video advocating both halves be dedicated to standing, which led me here and then here in my increasing confusion over precisely what claims were made by researchers. I guess I must be a real journalist, because it seems my distaste for citing sources isn't a deal-breaker.
So, there's a lot to be said about how the recent Cheddar video got the research fundamentally wrong – instead of saying standing-only is better, they should have said, on very long escalators, almost everyone stands anyway, so you might as well use both halves. On shorter ones, enough people climb the escalator that it's faster to let them.
That's all the research says, really. The throughput numbers reflect that almost child-like observation (people don't like climbing a lot of stairs), but even thinking about it in terms of flow rates is a bit too formal. Even the people who wanted the study don't have any plans to make the policy permanent where it could improve flow rates. If experts don't want the "better" system, it's important to ask: why?
Part of the answer is that subways are shockingly claustrophobic, especially at peak times. There's a reason commutes are so stressful. Don't get me wrong, you get used to it, and the American luxury of having huge platforms (which massively increase construction costs) helps. But everyone has that feeling in their gut, when they're stuck moving at a snail's pace through a dense crowd, they feel trapped. Maybe it doesn't bother you – it probably shouldn't, in an ideal world, I suppose – but I think it's important to notice things like that. Feelings are important.
And some people are in an actual rush – that's unavoidable. We routinely make accommodations for those people, because we know when we're in a rush, we'd trade a minute of delay the rest of the month to save five minutes now. Be nice to people who need it. You'll find yourself needing it every once in a while.
We also need conversations about stock and flow on a more general level – trying to make the densest possible public transport may mask a deeper vulnerability to demand and supply shocks. I've heard the DC area subway systems have had an extremely rough time to do weird cascading failures. One station goes down, and the other lines get overwhelmed making up for it, causing other stations to need expansion – if even a single line is disturbed the whole system becomes less usable. But these system-slack conversations are taking place in a context of extreme cost disease. If we could save 30% on subway construction (which seems extremely reasonable) maybe we could negotiate for things to be less maximally utilized. Perhaps that's a pipe dream, but etiquette and personal space are real values, not just some nonsense preventing human-movers from pushing maximal biomass.