Left vs. Right (or “The Escalator Issue”)

One of the key differences between the US and the UK is the rule of the road – left vs. right.  There’s of course a lot to be said about this issue, with a lot of history, speculation, etc.  I’m not trying to go into that comprehensively here, but let me first just point out, for any wrong-minded left-side drivers out there, that the MAJORITY of the world does, in fact, drive on the right!  Even considering population, rather than coverage of the map (which is more fair), the same holds.  Even though the lefties have the population powerhouse of India, the esimates are that the worldwide split is that about 2/3 of the population live in right-side countries while 1/3 live in left-side places.

RED = drive on the right, BLUE = drive on the left (any republican/democratic connotations unintended!)

But what does this have to do with escalators?  I take interest in and notice of escalators; yeah, I’m weird, but you already knew that – and I’m also sometimes unsympathetically logical or detail-oriented.  Plus, escalators are very important for metro systems – so that means they get my attention, and are quite important in my work.  This is especially true here in London, where stations often have to be closed if the escalators aren’t working (or ask anybody in Washington DC about it – especially with the recent Dupont Circle problems!).   So here’s the problem – despite driving on the left, the British policy on escalators is to stand right, walk left – just like the US.  I think that the flow of traffic, whether it be on a road or an escalator, should be consistent, and this is clearly not!  The expressways here (sorry, motorways) are set up with the slow lanes on the left (the outside) and the passing lanes on the right (the inside) – as you might expect when flipping everything around.  The escalator arrangement should be the same; in the US, slow traffic (i.e. standees) stays right, just like on an interstate or a hilly road with a passing lane, and the fast traffic (i.e. those walking) stays left.  The same should apply on moving walks at airports – I’m sure we’ve all been frustrated by violators in those cases!Since this has been bugging me since my first visit to the UK, I’ve mentioned it to a few Brits, who can’t answer for their inconsistency (usually, they have to acknowledge the inconsistentcy that I point out, then they slowly move away from me and stop talking!).  Now, as you probably can’t quite make out on the map, Japan is also a country where they drive on the left.  Imagine my pleasure, then, when I saw this:

Very busy escalators to/from the terminal for the JR East Chuo Line Rapid services at Tokyo Station

The 5-segment "skywalk" between Ebisu Station and Yebisu Garden Place in Shibuya, one of the many CBDs within central Tokyo

The incredible cascade of 10 levels of escalators at the Isetan department store within Kyoto Station

In Tokyo, they practice as they preach – they stand left, walk right on escalators and moving walks!  In public transport, I think there were signs saying as much, although I couldn’t be sure since they were all in Japanese…but the moving walk at Yebisu Garden Place confirmed what you could see people doing.  I was pleased to see the Japanese showing efficiency and consistency.

It was also interesting, though, that this wasn’t uniform in Japan.  While I found stand left, walk right in Tokyo, Osaka actually does the opposite!  I suppose as the center of Japan’s second-largest metro area, maybe they have to differentiate themselves from the high-rollers 320 miles to the northeast.  As I travelled through several cities, there was some cross-over; Yokohama matched Tokyo, and Kobe matched Osaka, while Kyoto was mostly left with a little right.

But wait…there could be more to the story.  I just did a little quick research, and I found some people saying that the reason for standing right, walking left is that people who need to stand may be weaker, such as the elderly/infirm, and since the majority of the population is right-handed (somewhere between 70 and 90% according to Scientific American), it is best for them to be able to use their right hand to hold onto the handrail for support.  Wow – I had never thought of that!  See this blog post from Singapore, where the always-efficient Singapore Mass Rapid Transit (SMRT) appears to follow Tokyo.  Now I’m not so sure – although hopefully we can at least all agree that having a rule, and having it followed consistently one way or the other, is a good thing!


Posted on 08/08/2010, in Silly British Things, Transit, Travel to Asia and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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