I spent Saturday in London, much of it travelling on the Underground. I was at Stamford Bridge for the football (Chelsea vs.Everton, finished 3-all, a thrilling draw!), and came back, first on the District Line (to Earl’s Court) and from there to King’s Cross on the Piccadilly Line.

Both lines were packed, both on the trains and in the stations, with, as it happened, reasonably cheerful supporters (Chelsea had equalised with the last kick of the game, so it felt like a win). But packed is packed, so I was delighted to read about a counterintuitive experiment conducted at Holborn Station designed to get people moving up the escalators more quickly. In London you stand on the right of the escalator, and walk on the left. Thus if you want to go more quickly, you walk. But in a deep station, like Holborn, or King’s Cross for the Piccadilly Line, most people do not want to walk, so only half (or, strictly, slightly more than half) of elevator capacity is used.


packed is packed… Benozzo Gozzoli, Adoration of the Magi

So at Holborn they asked people not to walk on the escalators at all, but to stand on both sides. The result? People flow (if that’s a thing) was much quicker.

It is an interesting conundrum. Some individuals were slowed down, but the group as a whole moved faster. We can expect something similar when all cars are computer driven, and controlled by a centralised traffic command structure. The speed of any one vehicle may be reduced; traffic will flow more smoothly.

I suppose there is something dystopian,  perhaps rather emasculating, to many people about sitting in their car and pottering along at 20 miles per hour, just as there might be something annoying about having to stand in amongst a mass of immobile bodies crawling skywards when you are late for a meeting. But this, I suppose, is the eternal beef between equality and freedom, the greater good and individual ambition. To which there is never a simple answer. But since I’m getting to the age where I have finally understood that there’s no point walking up an escalator, and that you may as well stand and have a bit of think, I’m not going to start a revolution.