In this installment of the Design Challenge we are pitting the European Commission against those ever sensible Swiss.
According to the estimates of people who specialise in estimating such things there are roughly 400,000 escalators in operation worldwide, which collectively generate a power bill North of $260 million a year (seems kind of low but since I’m not an escalator expert, lets just go with it!) As such energy-saving “sleep mode” escalators, which only begin operating as people approach, have become all the rage particularly in Europe. Seems like a win-win solution for everyone…we save the planet by reducing energy consumption and at the same time enable the ever expanding waistline of the world (SCORE!)
Here’s where things get interesting. When you approach a pair of normal escalators, which are 10’-15’ in front of you, your brain interprets explicit visual cues (one going up & one going down) and in a millisecond generates a P3a response which sends you along a trajectory in the right direction. Things start to get a bit fuzzy when you approach a pair of stationary “sleeping” escalators, which only begin operating after an infrared beam located ~5 feet from the first step is triggered.
Which brings us back to the two polaroids up above (click on the photo for a higher-res version). The picture on the left is from a European Commission building in Brussels. You can’t tell it from the resized picture but there are actually four escalators next to each other in the following arrangement:
Lower Flr - Upper Flr - Upper Flr - Lower Flr
I happened to be there for a conference and what I observed repeatedly over the course of three days were the results of shoddy design. In the absence of visual cues (moving stairs) people who wanted to go down to the ground floor would continually walk up to the “sleeping” escalator on the left, trigger the infrared beam @ 5’, and then almost trip as they stopped 1’ short of the first step which was going in the “wrong” direction (in this case up).
To be fair the escalator manufacturer must have recognised this would be an issue, so they implemented a replacement visual cue, but the design and placement of that cue was so poor it almost seems as if it was an afterthought. Based on observations it seems like the vast majority of people failed to recognise that small red “stop” light, which was behind the reflective plexiglass on the right and out of their direct line of sight, from 10’-15’ away. Of course that bright accent light on the blue walling, pulling eyes upwards didn’t help the situation either!
Contrast this to the picture on the right which was taken in Zurich Airport. As I was waiting for my flight I must have watched this escalator go on and off about 20 times while at least 100 people streamed down without issue. By simply moving those indicator lights 2’ forward and upwards to eye-level the designers were able to transform a halting and inarguable dangerous situation into a seamless experience that no-one (expect a design geek like me) thought twice about!
European Commission: 0 Flughafen Zürich: 1