LONDON — Perhaps it is all the tourists — 18.6 million international visitors to London last year, a record. Perhaps it is the gradual “Europeanization” of Britain. And perhaps it is just something to do with the blocked traffic on these ancient streets and all the diesel fumes in the air.
Cars still drive on the left, and signs still instruct you to walk on the left. But these days, on the sidewalks, staircases and escalators, chaos reigns. Walking anywhere in London or navigating the subway during rush hour means having to make a mad, dodging, aggressive dance against an oncoming tide of people, many of whom seem oblivious to Britain’s long tradition of walking on the left. And that is not counting those engrossed in their smartphones or blocking the exits while consulting Google Maps.
The answer to traffic, of course, should be the subway, or the Underground. But the system is chronically overcrowded, and annual ridership, already at 1.34 billion, has been increasing nearly 4 percent a year.
It has been rising so much that at Holborn Station, one of London’s busiest and deepest, with more than 56 million passengers a year and escalators 23.4 meters, or 77 feet, tall, there is an experiment to encourage people at rush hour to stand side by side on the escalators going up and merely ride them.
The science is simple: Fill the available space on the escalators with people, rather than leaving the left side of each step largely empty, except for the few who choose to march up the metal mountain.
The London Underground has concluded that in stations with escalators more than 18.5 meters, or about 61 feet, tall, much of the left side of the escalators goes unused, causing blockages and lines (“queues”) at the bottom.
A three-week trial at Holborn last year found that standing on both sides of the escalator reduced congestion about 30 percent. During rush hour, about 16,220 people could travel on the escalators, compared with 12,745 in normal conditions.
So a six-month trial began at Holborn in April. “It seems to be working better,” said Kieron Racher, a member of the Special Requirements Team for the London Underground. “We’re slowly changing people’s minds.”
Mark Evers, the customer strategy director for the London Underground, said results had been mixed, “as we expected at this stage.” With customer use increasing so fast, and given the depth of Holborn, it made sense to try the experiment during the morning and evening rush hours, he said, when the station is particularly hellish.
Holborn Station, opened in 1906, serves a busy commercial and academic part of London, near the British Museum, the London School of Economics and Bloomsbury Square, and two major lines, the Piccadilly and the Central, pass through it.
During many evening rush hours, staff members limit the number of people who can enter the station, or they shut it entirely for up to 10 minutes at a time because the escalators and platforms are packed.
Peter McNaught, the operations director for the London Underground, expressed optimism about the escalator experiment. “We hope this can lead to improving congestion at Holborn, making journeys easier for all our customers,” he said.
Of course, not everyone is happy. Some, like Andrew Hossack, are in a hurry to get to work. “A lot of people walk,” he said. “It’s about time, isn’t it?” Some, like Beth Forrester, like climbing for the exercise. “I always walk,” she said. “I always get my steps in!”
Andrew Brenner said he had stood that day, “but normally I walk, because it seems so stupid just to stand there.” Martin Dearden said he normally stood. “There are so many people,” he said. “I suppose in the end it does get more people out faster.” The behavioral science department at the London School of Economics has developed different messages to encourage travelers to stand.
Screens at the bottom of the escalators show a looped video of a neatly uniformed woman from the staff advising people to stand on both sides. There are signs on the floors; painted footsteps on both sides of the escalator stairs; electronic versions of triangular “stand on the right” signs; and, of course, station announcements that are difficult to hear through an inadequate loudspeaker system.
But the Underground has also, cleverly, left a third escalator — on the far left, of course — for anyone to ride or climb as he or she pleases, so in some sense it is stepping heaven, without any official hectoring.
If Holborn is a nightmare, Victoria Station is arguably worse, because it is undergoing a long reconstruction project to deal better with increased traffic and work more efficiently with the hugely busy railway and bus station there.
Given the building work, together with major construction projects nearby in an area that is being quickly built up, the walkways near the station are temporary and narrow, with uneven surfaces and lined with painted plywood.
They are made narrower still by pillars, homeless people and puzzled tourists, since these pathways do not typically show up on smartphones and can be disorienting. So at normal times they are difficult, and during rush hour they are a terrible obstacle course. Made much worse, of course, by the breakdown of the traditional British habit of walking on the left.
Instead, bodies fill all available space, especially as people wait at crosswalks or peer around to see if they can walk against the light, and then come at you like a Roman phalanx with shoulder and shopping bags instead of shields.
And of course, in this land of Magna Carta, some think it is their right as freeborn English men and women to do whatever they please, without Brussels or the London Underground telling them what to do.