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OM in the News: Dealing With Capacity in London’s Subway

January 25, 2016
The London Infrastructure Plan 2050 predicts demand on the system will rise by 60%

The London Infrastructure Plan 2050 predicts demand on the system will rise by 60%

On December 4, 2015, the London Underground served 4,821,000 passengers– a new record for a single day, writes The Guardian (Jan.16, 2016). But you can say this about the British: When they settle on a convention of public order, they stick to it. They wait in line. They leave the last biscuit. And when they take the escalator exiting the Tube, they stand on the right. The left is reserved for people in a hurry. Those who block the way can expect a public humiliation.

But it seemed to one Tube exec, visiting  Hong Kong, that passengers on that city’s subway were standing calmly on both sides of the escalator and yet travelling more efficiently and safely as a result. The theory, if counterintuitive, is compelling. It’s all very well keeping one side of the escalator clear for people in a rush, but in stations with long, steep walkways (some have a 75 foot height), only a small proportion are willing to climb. By allowing the option of keeping the left side open for walkers, the Tube effectively halves the capacity of the escalator in question, and creates significantly more crowding below. When you allow for the demands for “personal space” that persists in our society, it means people are largely unwilling to stand with someone directly adjacent to them or on the first step in front or behind. This halves again the theoretical capacity of the escalator.

Getting people to stand on both sides would mean that 31 more passengers (28% more) would get on to the escalator each minute–and the Tube has to extract every last ounce of capacity. But in order to make their plan work, management had to be ingenious – and persuasive.  That meant teams standing at the bottom of the escalators with megaphones, asking commuters, as cheerfully as possible, if they would mind standing on both sides. It even meant asking amenable couples to hold hands, thereby blocking walkers. How did the new approach work? An escalator that carried 12,745 customers between 8:30-9:30am in a normal week, carried 16,220 when it was designated standing only!

Classroom discussion questions:

  1. What other approaches could speed the exit lines?
  2. What is the main impediment to the London change?
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