It’s probably the number one gripe about tourists: they stand on both sides of the escalators on Metro, blocking the left side that is generally understood to be for walking. We Washingtonians understand that you stand to the right and walk on the left– there are even Facebook groups and t-shirts supporting the concept– but there are no formal signs on or near the escalators that say so. Why not? Rumors range from the theory that having people walk on one side and stand on the other leads to an unequal balance of weight and causes escalators to break down more frequently, or the theory that Metro doesn’t want to formally endorse a ‘stand right/walk left’ policy for liability and safety reasons. But what’s the real reason there aren’t signs telling tourists to stand to the right?
It’s complicated. WMATA Spokesperson Ron Holzer says that Metro recommends that all “riders stand and hold the hand rail as the safest way to go up and down and enjoy the ride”, as this is what escalators were meant to do. Escalator steps weren’t intended for walking, and they are taller than typical stairs, which increases the risk of tripping or being injured. Mr. Holzer says simply, “People shouldn’t walk on moving escalators.” That gives us Reason #1: It’s safer to stand still on escalators.
That being said, Metro has unofficially endorsed the ‘stand right/walk left’ philosophy. They posted signs about “escalefters” back in 2006 and ran announcements saying “You’ll notice that most people stand on the right side” of escalators starting in 2007. But why haven’t they posted simple signs on the escalators themselves? Wouldn’t that be the easiest way to clue visitors in to the unofficial policy?
Yes, but don’t hold your breath for ‘stand right/walk left’ signs to pop up on escalators anytime soon. Despite the fact that Dan Tangherlini supported the idea of signs in June 2006, and Metro said they were working with local jurisdictions to post the signs in May 2006, they still haven’t appeared in stations. And that’s because of Reason #2: Signs on escalators violate US safety codes. According to the Washington Post, “the national safety code for elevators and escalators does not allow non-cautionary signs to be posted within 10 feet of an escalator.”
Since there will be no official signs coming anytime soon, what’s the best way to inform tourists about this DC custom? Let’s say your train is pulling into the station, but tourists who don’t know any better are blocking your way down the escalator to catch that train. In this case, it’s probably ok to politely say “excuse me” and inch around them. And maybe it’s alright to mention to a chaperon of 20 escalefting children that it’s customary to stand to the right and walk on the left of Metro escalators. But really, we should probably all stop being so Type-A about this and relax– the tourists don’t know they’re doing anything wrong, and Metro can’t post signs about the issue. So your choices are to politely mention the ‘stand right/walk left’ philosophy to escalefting tourists (and risk being seen as an impatient big-city jackass), or just relax and enjoy the ride.