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Metro obstructs a local escalator custom.

It’s an annoyance most savvy Metro commuters have encountered: Bounding up the left-hand side of the escalator to get to work on time, you suddenly find yourself trapped behind two people standing side by side across the width of a step.

Dan Tangherlini, acting director of the District’s Division of Transportation, fielded a question about such logjams at a Dupont Circle community meeting last month: Couldn’t the folks at Metro do something to ease the escalator flow a bit? Maybe by directing people to stick to the right if they want to stand rather than walk?

The city had asked Metro about adding such signs, Tangherlini said. And Metro had said no. As Metro sees it, he explained, a “Stand to the right” sign would tacitly endorse the notion that people should walk on the left—or walk at all. Metro officially wants to discourage any such behavior.

This may be a surprise to District commuters who habitually walk on the left. It may especially surprise riders of the northwest branch of the Red Line, where Metro seemingly sanctions escalator-walking: “Stand to right” signs are on display at Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan, Cleveland Park, and Van Ness-UDC.

But not for long. According to Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority Public Affairs Officer Lisa Farbstein, the signs are on their way out. Metro has tapped a private escalator-repair contractor to remove them.

Metro decided several years ago to get rid of the signs, Farbstein says. But the removal took a back seat to routine elevator and escalator maintenance—and to the system’s epidemic of unscheduled repairs. After the Washington City Paper called in April to ask about the policy, Farbstein says, Metro opted to revive its removal efforts.

Taking down a sign isn’t as simple as loosening a few screws. To unfasten the signs, you have to get under the panel covering the slope between escalators. To get under that panel, you have to remove the nearest side panel. To remove the nearest side panel, you have to shut down the escalator. At Cleveland Park, it appears that someone’s already gotten a head start: Though there is still a sign at the base of the slope between the first and second escalators, there are only a black smudge and a few screw holes in the same spot between the second and third.

So why the effort? What’s wrong with walking? Someone who walks on the escalator is more likely to bump into someone else, Farbstein says, or to get clothing or body parts caught in the machine’s moving parts. “It is preferred that at all times people who are using the escalator stand [and] hold the handrail,” she says. “Stand there and let them do their thing….They’re people-movers. Let them move you.”

Some people who’ve been injured on escalators have sued Metro, Farbstein says, but she denies that the signage removal is a liability issue: “‘Liability’ isn’t the word I’d use. [I’d say] there are safety concerns.”

Walking (or running) up and down escalators also increases wear and tear on the machinery, she says. A pair of legs standing doesn’t apply as much force to the steps as a pair that’s pounding up or down the stairway.

Even with the survival of its ailing machines at stake, Metro is not actively prohibiting walking. With regional etiquette favoring a two-lane system familiar to highway motorists, Farbstein says, “We cannot make everybody stand still. That is obvious. [What] we want to do is encourage people” to stand rather than walk.

But custom is hard to suppress. Many Metro commuters favor the walk-on-the-left/stand-on-the-right arrangement. “I’ve always joked that you could tell the locals because they know the drill,” says Barbara Bryant, whose position as a writer and editor at the American Legacy Foundation takes her from the Takoma station to Metro Center every day.

Sometimes, Bryant says, she gently tells blockers to stand to one side. “Most people are very nice about it; they’re sort of embarrassed,” she says. On rare occasions the usual Oh-I’m-sorry-I-didn’t-mean-to-get-in-your-way response will lose out to a less civil reaction: “One guy tried to take a swing at me….Sometimes I’ve been poked at or jostled a little bit, [but] I didn’t take it seriously.”

And if you’re trying to get somewhere, it’s hard to resist the temptation to hurry up on Metro’s longer escalators, such as the one Bryant takes at Bethesda. “You could sit there and read War and Peace on the damn thing,” she says.

According to a stopwatch experiment, standing still on the escalator in and out of the cavernous north entrance of the Dupont Circle stop, a favorite subject of tourist photos, will eat up two minutes and 10 seconds of your life. Rides on escalators at the Woodley Park-Zoo, Medical Center, and Bethesda stations are even longer, all within a second or two of two minutes and 24 seconds. Then there’s the system’s crown jewel—the escalator at Wheaton, touted on Metro’s Web site as the longest escalator in the Western Hemisphere. A standing ride up the escalator takes about two minutes and 46 seconds. Walking up these same escalators will cut your trip time by half or more.

Sometimes the people-movers won’t move you at all. From time to time, Metro will shut down an escalator completely, effectively turning it into a long flight of stairs. According to Farbstein, that’s not always a result of maintenance work—sometimes it’s a crowd-control tactic. During the National Cherry Blossom Festival, for instance, escalators leading into the Smithsonian station were shut down to minimize the size of the crowd on the platform below.

So the don’t-walk crusade has a way to go. Once the signs are gone, Metro may want to take a look at its farecards—some list

escalator-safety tips on the back, including a suggestion to “Stand to your right.”

“I’m sure it’s not been brought to anybody’s attention,” Farbstein says of the cards. But if they were, “They’d look into it.” CP