Love-hate relationships with Metro escalators

Robert Thomson
Columnist April 23, 2011

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Those who have written to you advocating that Metro replace its escalators with steps like most of the New York subway system has [Dr. Gridlock, March 27] have never: been elderly; had either a temporary or permanent disability that makes it difficult if not impossible to walk up or down stairs; or had to carry one or more suitcases up multiple flights of steps to exit the subway system. Those with young children could add more to this list.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region. View Archive

Suggesting that people with difficulties use elevators instead of escalators will not work, because of the number of elevators that are already closed for repairs. The number would increase with increased usage.

Every time I lug my suitcase up steps in the New York subway, while holding on to the grimy handrail to keep from falling, I comment that at least Metro tries to make it possible for riders of all ages and capabilities to use the system. It often is not a question of wanting to use stairs or escalators, but of what is possible.

— Therese Martin, Reston

Many think it’s time to admit defeat in the long battle to keep the moving stairs moving, but when I asked whether they wanted to replace the escalators with stairs, many riders saw problems.

What alternative?

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Perhaps stairs were an alternative to escalators when most Metro passengers traveled unencumbered by rolling baggage, but now nearly half have these contraptions in varying sizes. The average passenger is traveling with a computer, miscellaneous documents and even a change of shoes or clothes, making it almost impossible to manage even a short flight of stairs, much less the humongous number at many stations. Even the limited number for mezzanine access can prove a burden.

In London, the elevators for many stations are room-size, handling 50 or more passengers. Our Metro system would need these to keep traffic flowing and allow disabled or elderly passengers to be able to use the elevators.

— Nelson Marans, Silver Spring

Good point about the limited capacity of Metro’s elevators. Rush-hour lines would be long if they were the only alternative to stairs.

Willing to walk

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I am 58 years old with a back problem that often causes me pain when I walk up and down stairs, yet I always walk on the escalators. At the Shady Grove Station, when I get there in the evening, I always head for the stairs because they actually move faster than the down escalator.

With the stairs, everyone has to walk and you aren’t suddenly stopped by someone standing on the left side as you do on the escalator. There are no tourists or friends riding side-by-side blocking the whole way. So I say, heck yes, get rid of the escalators.

If you must keep them at all, just have the ones going up. I don’t see why they would have to all be replaced. Just put the escalators in permanent stop mode and put out little signs saying that all down escalators will no longer be moving.

Somehow we managed to survive at Medical Center with there being no moving escalator for months while they fixed both escalators.

— Melissa Yorks, Gaithersburg

But many riders point out that escalator steps can be more difficult to walk on then regular stairs. That’s one reason they’re bothered when Metro turns off an escalator to serve as a temporary staircase.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Every Metro station should have stairs from the station to the mezzanine level. It’s a matter of safety, crowd control and emergency response. Many stations have only one exit from the train level.

Having been in the Bethesda Station when it was filled with smoke this winter, I believe there always need to be at least two exits to handle crowds and emergencies. In many stations, stairs can be added without removing the escalators.

Now that the escalators no longer seem to work dependably, the availability of stairs is obviously a necessity to move people. When it gets funding, Metro should move to build stairs at each station.

— Ed Comer, Bethesda

Metro has no plans for a mass conversion of the troubled escalators into staircases. There are plans to add staircases at some stations as part of larger reconstruction efforts. One such project is underway at Foggy Bottom. Metro’s proposed reconstruction on the north side of Union Station includes a stairway between mezzanine and platform.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer’s name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or
e-mail drgridlock@washpost.com.

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