Escalators: Why Do We Have Them?

While running some errands today in downtown Milwaukee, I stopped at the Grand Avenue Mall, a shopping center that uses escalators to connect its three levels. As I rode the “up” escalator to my bank, I thought, “GeeâÂ?¦these things seem rather unnecessary.” Like most Americans, I’ve ridden escalators my whole life, yet I’ve never stopped to consider why we really have them.

I mean, movie directors often use them symbolically to mark the rise or fall of characters or to make statements about class. Remember Annette Benning riding one as Carolyn Burnham in American Beauty? That was an artistic choice. But practically, do elevators serve any purpose other than saving lazy people a few strides?

Well, the answer is “it depends.”

The vast majority of escalators are in malls, department stores, airports, subways, and office buildings. Almost universally, each of these settings is also equipped with one or more elevators to help people with wheelchairs, strollers, or other equipment get from floor to floor. Escalators are actually pretty hazardous for the physically disabled because they require nimbleness and good timing for safe entry and exit. If you’re in a wheelchair, escalators are impossible. And if you use a walker or a cane, you’d better be confident and agile. So, in terms of passengers, escalators tend to see mostly able-bodied people – people who could just as well take the stairs.

Furthermore, most escalators are only good for a couple of floorsâÂ?¦maybe two, three, or four levels. After that, they get tedious and annoying. In most contexts, escalators don’t have the distance range of elevators. Also, it’s not as though escalators move so swiftly that they render stairs inefficient. Most people can climb or descend a staircase just as fast as – if not faster than – they can take an escalator.

Given the substantial cost of installing and operating escalators, you have to wonder whether their limited usefulness makes them worthwhile.

What about safety, you ask? In my (admittedly non-scientific) estimation, people are just as likely to injure themselves by tripping or falling on an escalator as they are by tripping and falling on a staircase. Both require balance, body control, and attentiveness. You might even argue that, because most of us climb regular stairs everyday, we’re far more adapted to them and less likely to fall. But escalators, while still common, are less ubiquitous and thus less immediately familiar. Beyond regular trips and falls, of course, the moving parts of escalators make them a hazard, as clothing, shoes, fingers, and other extensions can get stuck in them, causing some truly grotesque accidents – and even death Some attorneys even specialize in escalator injury litigation.

At this point, it may seem as though escalators’ only function is to haul people who are too lazy to walk up one or two flights of stairs. However, I have identified a few situations when escalators do make sense:

1. In some shopping contexts, people are navigating between floors with a cart full of stuff. True, most multi-floor department stores (think Macy’s, Marshall Fields, Bloomingdale’s, JC Penney, etc.) are not shopping cart stores. But consider Ikea, the warehouse-like furniture store. By using special escalators designed to handle carts, Ikea shoppers can access all floors with their buggies of merchandise. This is a fairly unique situation, but given that maintaining only elevators in such a high-traffic, cart-oriented store would be inconvenient, escalators are justifiable.

2. In public settings with restricted access points or unique needs for directing foot traffic, escalators can be useful. Consider airports, subways, rail stations, or other buildings that need to engineer the space so that people flow in particular directions. Escalators can’t really be used in the reverse direction (without serious effort or danger), so people will almost universally obey the established directions, rendering the flow of foot traffic smoother and faster. In other words, escalators – with all their complicated moving parts – are often used just because people need to be herded in a way that stairs don’t allow.

3. Some subway systems are pretty deep in the ground. The entrances and exits, besides being justified under #2 above, may also be justified on the basis of distance. For example, the Washington metro system has some straightaway stretches of escalator around 500 feet long. Considering the long, continuous distance, the escalator may actually be more efficient than stairs because, admittedly, people eventually lose speed on the stairs as they tucker out.

In summary, I guess I’d argue that, though there are certain contexts in which they seem appropriate, escalators are mostly unnecessary and not worth the expense and complication when compared to good old stairs. People can use the workout anyway, right?

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