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Escalators of Equality

You may not have noticed this, but the escalators on the underground MRT in Bangkok have signs telling you not to walk and to hold onto the handrail.  But on the BTS skytrain, they tell you to walk on the left and stand on the right.

Certainly the vast majority of passengers seem to be ignoring the signs.  This could be the confusion of having different systems in the same city, but I suspect it’s just the regular scoff-law attitude you get round here.

My own reaction, based on one summer of travelling on the London underground swearing at illiterate tourists who insisted on standing on the left, was that the BTS had it right.

But now the London underground itself think they’ve had it wrong all these years.

Faced with squeezing ever increasing flows of commuters through the same narrow corridors and platforms, they looked at their escalator code of conduct and worked out that, unless the escalators were relatively short and the crowds relatively thin, they could shift more bodies on the escalators in a given period of time if everyone stood still.

It seems counter-intuitive until you think it through. 

A good-length busy escalator will have at any one moment say 50 people standing on the right, with a minimal gap between them.  But on the left, the number of walkers will be less than that, because (a) like moving vehicles, they need more space between them, and (b) the number willing to walk decreases with the length of the escalator.  So maybe 25 on the left and a top capacity of 75.

But if both sides were standing, you could get two times 50, which adds up to (er, zero and carry one, er) 100.  The extra 25 would otherwise be hanging about, waiting for an empty space on the steps.

The walkers will get where they want to go more slowly, but overall everyone should get there quicker since there will less waiting time before getting on the escalator.

And, with the help of burly Transport for London staff deliberately standing on the left, glaring at anyone trying to push past, and strategically inserted couples instructed to hold hands (and a lot of signs and loudspeaker messages), the experiment at one tube station has proved this.  No walking, and everyone, overall, gets there faster.  (TfL’s next problem is how to change their customers’ habits of a lifetime and they admit they’ve not a clue.)

The same is true with economic equity. 

The cheer-leaders for capitalism have no qualms about glorifying the equivalent of the escalator walkers.  BBC Business News floods Davos with reporters ostensibly to find out what the 1% at the WEF are planning for the rest of us, but also to put out ooh-ah pieces on the joys of being superrich. 

Forbes is only the best-known of the billionaire listing organizations and the Thai press eagerly reports on how home-grown financial gluttons are getting on, as if having more uber-wealthy Thais is somehow good for the rest of us.  Or a suitable object for patriotic pride.

But just as walking on escalators might speed things up for the minority of walkers but overall delay the rest of the commuting public, gross economic disparities in wealth and income (and Thailand is indisputably gross in both) may help make the elite more elite but represent impoverishment for the country as a whole.

The economic data is becoming clearer with every new piece of research.  Greater inequality slows overall growth; greater equality floats more boats, even if there are fewer luxury yachts among them.

To say nothing of the myriad other benefits that seem to co-occur with economic equity, from higher voter participation rates to more ecological re-cycling, even if teasing out the causes from the effects often proves tricky.

The message seems to be clear.  Stop overpaying those who already have more than enough; use progressive taxes on income and taxes on wealth (like land and inheritance taxes) to flatten out the playing field even more; raise the minimum wage; and put a floor under deprivation through the free and equitable provision of healthcare, education, pensions, disability benefits, a clean environment and so on.

And stand on both sides of the escalator.


About author:  Bangkokians with long memories may remember his irreverent column in The Nation in the 1980's. During his period of enforced silence since then, he was variously reported as participating in a 999-day meditation retreat in a hill-top monastery in Mae Hong Son (he gave up after 998 days), as the Special Rapporteur for Satire of the UN High Commission for Human Rights, and as understudy for the male lead in the long-running ‘Pussies -not the Musical' at the Neasden International Palladium (formerly Park Lane Empire).

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