Walk left, stand right

There is a debate raging in Budapest that has nothing to do with politics, religion, or the price of a tea in China. The proponents and opponents of this particular issue cannot be divided by race, class or creed. Unless you’ve been dragged into this debate by someone eager to bolster support for the side they happen to be taking, you’re probably unaware that it’s going on. Yet it’s consuming an inordinate amount of time in conversations around the city; time that used to be spent talking about things that actually matter, like politics, religion or the price of tea in China.

Right, left or in the middle?

So, where do you stand…on an escalator? On the right, on the left, or in the middle?  More importantly perhaps, why do you stand there?

If you stand on the right, do you do so because a) you’ve been institutionalised: walk left, stand right is pretty much universal and why should Budapest be any different; b) you’ve read the safety reports and know that the safest way to ride an escalator is to stand on the right and hold on to the rail; c) you value your thinking time and don’t want it interrupted by a constant stream of elnézésts as those trying to get fit, stay fit or in a hurry pass you by; or d) you don’t want to stand in the way of progress.

If you stand on the left, do you do so because a) this is the only opportunity you have to stand beside your friend and chat; b) you’re anti-establishment and never follow rules, even those that involve social etiquette; c) it’s an escalator, damn it, and if people want to walk or run up or down, they should take the stairs (if you lived in Washington DC, people would call you an ‘escalump’ – the human equivalent of a speed bump; or d) you live in Hungary because it isn’t the UK or North America and you see this conformity as the first step down the rocky road to sameness.

If you stand in the middle, do you do so because a) you have friends on both sides of the debate and don’t want to alienate anyone; b) you’ve been working out and have bulked up so it only looks like you’re standing in the middle – really you’re standing on the right; c) you’re indecisive but believe in taking ‘average’ to new heights; d) you have no friends and by standing in the middle, you’re guaranteed that someone will talk to you, either to ask you to move right or to engage you in a spate of escalump bashing.

Or perhaps you don’t stand at all – you move – but you want other people to stand on the right so that you can keep moving.

The laws of motion

A typical argument from the static left is that escalators, unlike moving walkways, are not designed for walkers or runners and therefore it shouldn’t matter where they stand. This is combated by the moving left, who maintain that an escalator is, in effect, a stairs, and people don’t stand still on stairs, now do they?

Another argument from the static left is that running or walking doesn’t save you time so why bother…you’re really only rushing because you want us to think that you have places to go and people to see. But, say the moving left, you have no idea why we’re running? Maybe we’re getting fit, staying fit, or in a hurry home. Why are you so interested, anyway?

In Budapest, almost 10,000 people have joined the Facebook group Jobbra állok a metró mozgólépcsőn. BKV’s terms and conditions of travel state: ‘Travel on the right-hand side of the escalator and leave the left-hand side free for passengers in a hurry to pass you.’ In other words, walk left, stand right. But in Toronto, in 2007, the Transit Commission removed all signs suggesting the walk left, stand right practice from their 294 escalators after a safety inspection agency told them that they were condoning unsafe behaviour: apparently, moving on an escalator can be dangerous! So who’s right? Or wrong? And does it really matter?

For me, there’s no contest. The etiquette of standing right, walking left makes perfect sense.  You never know, one day I might get the urge to exercise and it would be nice to have a clear left lane so that I could act on the impulse before I have time to change my mind. But, more importantly, on the escalator in Moszkva tér in particular, it means having an uninterrupted 1.56 minutes to think about important things in life, like politics, religion, and the price of tea in China.

First published in the Budapest Times 1 February 2010

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