Why Don't We Stand On The Left Of Escalators?

Why Don't We Stand On The Left Of Escalators?

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Photo: Matt Brown

'Stand on the right' is the most important London commandment.

A little while back we asked a rather harmless question on Twitter. If you could ban anything from London what would it be? We got the ball rolling ourselves with a cheap shot aimed at the cretins of the world who stand on the left hand side of escalators, blocking the path for anyone who intends to clamber up (or speed down) that side. We thought this would be relatively uncontroversial — isn't standing on the wrong side of escalators a London-wide annoyance?

But we were wrong. A couple of people argued that this habit of standing on the right and walking on the left doesn't make any sense. So we decided to investigate.

Their line of argument derives from one key point — most Britons are actually better at keeping left. It's what we do in vehicles up on street level, one of those quirks that marks the UK out from (most of) the rest of the world. To understand why we stand on the right, let's first look at why we drive on the left.

Photo: Magic Pea

This practice dates back to either the Middle Ages or Roman times, depending who you ask — either way, it's ancient. The majority of the world is right handed (types the left-dominant author, not at all bitter), and historically wielded their trusty sword in their right hand. On roads, people wanted their sword hand facing any trouble that might befall them from the opposite direction, which is how we ended up driving on the left.

The rest of the world used to keep left too, until the introduction of large wagons used to transport goods in the 18th century. The driver of these sat on the horse at the back left, to keep his whip hand free, so was better suited to driving on the right. Except as the rest of the world adapted to these new rules, these sizeable wagons never made it to Britain, as they weren't suited to our roads — so Britain kept left.

Fast forward to now. When walking through the corridors and tunnels of the tube network, there are plenty of reminders to keep left, mirroring what happens on the streets above. This just makes it even more confusing that a switch is necessary when people reach the escalators. How did we come up with this system?

Keep left is everywhere you look in the city. So what makes escalators so special?

It all dates back to when the first successful escalator (there was a failed attempt to build a spiral escalator beforehand) was introduced on the tube in 1911 at Earl's Court Station. Alighting an escalator was different back then to nowadays. There was a diagonal partition — beneath which the stairs disappeared — that shunted passengers disembarking to the left. So it was decided that those walking up the escalator should stand on the left, otherwise they'd have to cut through a line of those standing. And that would've been mayhem.

Escalator design improved, but stand on the right, walk on the left remained. When we Londoners find a system we like, we stick to it. Even if there is an argument that standing on both sides of the escalators might actually be more beneficial — watch the video below to find out more.

Etiquette isn't the only issue with standing on the right. Doing so damages the machinery. This has become a real problem in China where the majority of people tend to stand, all on the right. This means the escalators wear unevenly. On the Nanjing Metro, 95% of escalators were found to have damage on the right side. The metro responded by abolishing standing on one side.

Back on our tube, we doubt this is as pressing an issue due to a slightly more even split between walkers and standers, but still must have an effect. Perhaps we can suggest alternating which side we stand on depending on the year? If it's an even year stand on the right, an odd year stand on the left? That should balance the wear and tear out.

This is all moot. There is little chance Londoners will ever change their ways. Standing on the right is too ingrained in our collective psyche. Even if it doesn't make sense anymore.

Last Updated 26 March 2019