DC Mythbusting: Stand to the Right!

Photo courtesy of
‘Stand on the right?’
courtesy of ‘karthikkito’

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.

Photo courtesy of
‘i have an escalator problem.’
courtesy of ‘volcanojw’

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.”

Photo courtesy of
‘Escalefter’
courtesy of ‘kendrickhang’

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.

Shannon grew up in the greater DC area/Maryland suburbs, went to Virginia for college and grad school (go Hoos!), and settled in DC in 2006. She’s an urban planner who loves transit (why yes, that is her dressed as a Metro pylon for Halloween), cities, and all things DC. Email her at Shannon (at) WeLoveDC.com!

39 thoughts on “DC Mythbusting: Stand to the Right!

  1. why does the requirement that the sign can’t be within 10 feet of the escalator such a problem? Put the phrase on the fare cards. Put the phrase on Metro maps. Put the phrase on a sign at the entrance to each station. Put the phrase up front and center on the wmata website.

    There’s all sorts of creative and non-creative ways to get around the 10 foot requirement. Kind of amazing that with all the real estate that Metro has and all the ways it has to get its message across that it is letting itself be stymied over exclusion from a comparatively extremely small area of station space. Something doesn’t add up here.

  2. @ andy I think Metro could get around the sign regulations, but they can’t get around the safety/liability issue. Escalators were made for standing (not walking), and Metro recommends that people not walk on escalators. I’m not a lawyer, but something tells me that officially endorsing the ‘stand right/walk left’ custom could lead to legal issues in the case of an injury.

  3. I have heard that the reason is safety — escalators are designed for riding, not walking. Escalator steps are higher and differently spaced than regular steps (ever noticed that it’s harder to walk up escalators then regular stairs?) so they are by nature a tripping hazard when walking. Metro can get away with freezing escalators in an emergency/service situation, but actively promoting them for walking would be a liability no-no.

    Not saying I agree with this (or even that it is true), but have heard it explained thus.

  4. Okay, sorry. I just realized I restated what is the article. My duh. I came over from the tweet.

  5. It is already posted on the back of the farecards. I happen to have one in my wallet that a friend gave me after visiting (and everyone loves free metro money). The back of the card says:

    Escalator Safety Tips
    –Please hold small children by the hand.
    –Don’t run or sit on escalators.
    –Make sure your shoe laces are tied.
    –Stand to the right. Hold on to the railing.

    While it doesn’t specifically say “Stand right. Walk left,” at least it says to stand to the right. How many people actually flip the card over and read the tips, however, is yet to be determined.

  6. Isn’t this common knowledge for escalators across the country? I just moved here and just assumed that’s the unwritten rule everywhere…tourists have no excuses!

  7. Escalators are not intended to be walked on? Are the moving walkways at the airport also not intended to be walked on?

  8. And what does weight distribution have to do with it? There will always be the same number of people on either side on a crowded escalator no matter what, the left side just has a faster rate of people entering and exiting.

  9. Metro may not have a policy about where to stand on the escalators but they used to have notices over the speakers (that no one can hear) to stand on the right on escalators.

    @ Lauren, you’re right, it is common knowledge for escalators across the country, some people just dont’t know better

  10. As users, why don’t we just put up our own signs? Something with a nice design and no Comic Sans. The same tomato slice has been hanging on the wall in Courthouse for months along the escalator so I don’t think we have to worry about anyone taking them down.

  11. Wasn’t there a short period some years back when the Dupont Circle escalator had not only signs but a recorded message asking people to stand to the right?

    Also, it seems to me that people are more likely to walk because the escalators are so slow, so the real question may be why that is. When going from the Metro to a mall or department store, for example, I notice that the store escalators are noticeably faster. Surely commercial buildings aren’t less concerned about liability than WMATA is.

  12. Metro still plays a recorded message saying, “You’ll notice that most people stand on the right side of escalators”, and as Lindsey mentioned, they include standing on the right as a safety tip. But tourists don’t seem to understand what that means.

    @KCinDC I’ve read that several stations used to have signs bolted on to the escalators, but I think they’ve all been removed.

  13. DC needs to realize that this is pretty much a custom everywhere in the United States where there are escalators. It’s really not a quaint DC custom and the people who don’t do it here are d-bags everywhere else too.

  14. @KCinDC Actually it’s probably because many more people will use Metro than a commerical building. Specifically, I’m thinking of slow moving elderly people, who will always have a problem with getting on and off escaltors.

    In fact, Slate did an interesting article about moving walkways (http://www.slate.com/id/2259643/) and came to the conclusion they have to be slower because people can’t react fast enough. Granted moving walkways are exactly like escaltors, but they are close enough.

    And, btw, I am skeptical that signs would do any good. My general view is the best way for someone to miss something important is to put it on a sign. Anouncements would be best, such as the annoying ones on walkways in airports (“Caution, the moving walkway is ending”).

    BTW, another great article Shannon!

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  16. @Brian Why are Americans unable to deal with faster escalators? In the London Tube, the escalators go what feels 50% faster. I’ve never seen an elderly person tumble, nor seen any one else have a problem walking on them. And they have signs.

  17. The only thing more pathetic than people who stand on the left, are the people who run/jog on the left. Those sad desperate people who think that running down an escalator will get them to the train faster, which shows up on timed intervals anyway. It is a daily occurrence for me to on the platform next to some panting overeager dork that sprinted past everyone 2 minutes ago, who then stands there and stares into space for another minute while waiting for the train to come. If you miss one, guess what, another is right behind it.

  18. This is in regards to it being a universal thing to stand to the right and walk left. I am not from a city and the only escalators were in malls. I think that most tourists that come here are not from big cities and do not know that this is the standard. I tell all visiting friends and relatives that they should do this and they have all been thankful. Most of the time, I do say to obvious tourists, “hey listen. Just so you know, here in DC we stand right, walk left. Others won’t be so nice about. *giggle*” and then walk past them. I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone ever stay on the left. Now the stupid teenagers at Gallery Place are who I would want to punch in the face for standing left and when I say, “excuse me” and they either don’t move or move such a small distance away I want to punch them twice.

  19. I’m guessing R.DNA has never taken the Metro in the middle of the day or after 6:30pm, when if you’re not running to catch the train on the platform, you may be standing around for 20 minutes to get the next one.

  20. @Lauren: It’s not just common around the country, it’s standard practice around the world (well, Europe anyway). I’ve ridden the subways in London, Munich and Paris and riders “stand right/walk left” there, too.

    Also, I have no problem asking people to let me through. I do try to be polite though.

  21. Sadly, I have not found that walking on the left side of the escalator is common, regardless of American location.

    As for the tourists, it is not unreasonable to think many of them never use escalators. For example, the county Penn State, a huge university with nearly 50,000 students, did not get its first escalators until 2001. They were installed in the football stadium, nothing else is in the area needs one.

  22. i could swear that i’ve seen signs about this, and have heard the audible announcements recently.

  23. “But really, we should probably all stop being so Type-A about this and relax”

    Sorry, when I’m running late for an appointment or late for work or late to catch a train or a flight because Metro has yet again failed to operate on schedule, and I need to walk/hurry up the escalator and there’s a group of tourists staring at the ceiling of the tunnel like they it’s some sort of amazing thing, I am going to tell them to move over so people who have actual important things to do can get by. Guess that makes me Type-A, or something.

    There are tourists and then there are tourists with no common sense to look around and see what everyone else is doing.

  24. I pretty much have to agree with “we should probably all stop being so Type-A about this and relax” line.

    While I know that some people would like to think that hurrying up the escalator will somehow make the difference between getting to work on-time or getting to work late, I don’t actually think that’s the case. On a mezzanine escalators, having to stand on the thing probably costs you 30 seconds or less. Even on the deeper station exit escalators, we’re looking at just a couple of minutes to ride while standing.

    While I get frustrated by tourists as well, I really can’t blame them if I’m going to be late. I can blame myself for not leaving earlier, or if there were Metro delays I can blame Metro, but those things are far more responsible for my tardiness than the 60-90 second delay I face by having to stand on an escalator.

  25. Dave, it’s not a 60-90 second delay. It’s either no delay (if you catch the train) or whatever the current interval between trains is (if you miss it). That interval could be 20 minutes, depending on the time of day, or longer during weekend single tracking.

  26. @KCinDC,

    Sorry, most of my comments are directed at people who are cranky about standees while exiting the station.

    During rush hour, if you are running down the escalator, there’s not much point, even on the Green and Yellow lines the interval is only around 7 minutes.

    I could see a point if you are running down the escalator on the weekend, to make a train to avoid a 20-30 minute wait.

  27. Amen. As someone who lives here, I want to scream when these people use both sides and just stand there with a LINE forming behind them.

    I make it a point to tell them and if they don’t move, I just go right through them.

    I have had someone not move so I just charged by them. I don’t care how much he got pushed.

    His fault

  28. I seriously disagree with the “Relax, and don’t be so Type A about it” advice. It’s common sense and simple courtesy to stand on the right and let others who want to walk pass on the left. Some of us aren’t even in a hurry — we simply prefer the exercise, and stairs aren’t always an option.

    People should be MORE assertive about teaching tourists the quaint traditions of Metro, including
    1) Standing on the right/walking on the left on the escalators;
    2) Not stopping at the end of the escalator to get your bearings;
    3) Letting people exit a train before you try to board;
    4) Moving towards the center of the car after you board;
    5) Not using the poles as your personal backrest/asscrack-rest/stripper pole.

    Metro isn’t perfect, but I am thankful for traditions #1 and #3 every time I take the subway in other cities.

  29. The first reason seems to have a major flaw – why can’t signs just say “Stand to the Right”? This doesn’t advocate walking on the left.

  30. Several years ago, Metro actually did put “Stand to the Right” signs in stations in the form of floor decals. Unfortunately, the disk stickers didn’t last, as they disintegrated after a couple of rain-soaked rush hours.

    As for the “Type-A” comment, I can’t imagine how bad rush hour would be if nobody walked the escalators, especially in high-volume stations.

  31. At least back in the day, some of the actual escalators did have little signs on them, at stations like Woodley Park and other tourist-heavy spots. They were little placard-type signs, attached to the escalator “medians” … I wish they’d put them up in other stations.

  32. I’m confused, if people just stand on escalators, how are they supposed to get in or out of the station?

    [checks Wikipedia]

    Wait! Those things are supposed to move?! Holy cow, what a novel idea.

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