Subway Escalator Body Language

Subway Escalator Body Language

by Barbara Chatzkel

Last month we chatted about the body language of subway riders in New York City, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. I heard from riders of all three systems who agreed that a common body language etiquette for subway riding exists. Thanks for your feedback.

Standing at the top or bottom of the very busy Washington, D.C. Rosslyn Metro Station escalator during the height of the morning or afternoon commute provides a front row seat to an ever-changing variety show – drama, comedy, lecture, and stoicism.

Metro, the greater Washington, D.C. area subway system has 91 stations. Five stations have escalators more than 437 feet long. For comparison, the Washington Monument is 555 feet tall. Rosslyn’s escalator, the fifth longest, is 437 feet long.


Ridership analysis for February 2016 shows more than 13,666 individuals rode the Rosslyn escalator twice a day. Assuming that 70 percent of that traffic occurs during the four-hour commute period, there are close to 2,400 passengers on the escalator an hour!


There is a specific set of body language that has evolved for the escalator-riding portion of the commute. Some commuters start the day with the descent down the Rosslyn escalator and conclude the commute emerging from the depths of the station to the light of northern Virginia. Others emerge from the station during the morning commute and begin the trip home by descending to the depths of the Rosslyn station.

The official protocol of “Walk Left, Stand Right” is rigorously adhered to by the seasoned walk-left-stand-rightcommuter. The escalator moves at 90 feet a minute, so the ride time is almost three minutes if one gets on and stands in place. The body language variety show is continual. One person is texting away; someone else is on the phone; another is applying makeup or fixing their hair; then there’s the individual frantically looking for something in their backpack/briefcase/pocketbook; not to mention the people reading books or the newspaper. It is a parade of solitary performances with little eye contact, very few arm or leg movements, and virtually never a smile.

Then come the tourists, and the variety show gets more interesting. There is no mistaking which individuals are tourists and which are the regulars. Their body language is everything that the commuter’s body language is not. They congregate in groups and occupy the full width of the escalator and multiple steps, oblivious to the blockage they are causing. They chatter and giggle and laugh and take selfies. Their body language is expressive – big, sweeping motions with lots of facial expressions.

And this is where it can be fascinating. Some commuters walk up or down the escalator to save time, their trips timed to the second to get on a specific train. “Tourist blockage” can mess that up. Typically, the first attempt to clear the left side of the escalator is a polite “Passing on your left” or “Please move to the right.” At this point, the commuter comes out of their solitary state and can become pedantic. Comments I’ve heard include:

  • “This isn’t a tourist attraction – it’s the subway!”
  • “Please move over NOW” (the “please” being optional).
  • “Don’t ride the subway during commute hours.”
  • And the best was a full-blown lecture on common courtesy delivered in an aggressive manner.

The tourists move to the right like an annoyed brood of hens with much clucking and fluffing of feathers. Soon the ride is over, and everyone moves onto the platform. This particular variety show comes to a close, but 437 feet above, it starts again.

What are your escalator experiences? How have you dealt with someone ignoring the rules?

Have a great month and keep watching body language!

Barbara Chatzkel’s ability to provide a vibrant and behavior-changing book extends Chatzkelacross industry segments – everyone uses business body language. Her coaching and consulting expertise on business body language grew from conducting union negotiations, managing difficult personnel situations, managing at multiple levels, and extensive business coaching experience. Her new book,
Business Body Language: Your Visual Business Card, will be available in print in early 2016. Visit her website today for further information.

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1 Response to Subway Escalator Body Language

  1. jksails says:

    Good observations. I’ve seen a tourist jam break up when asked to move, with different responses. The blocker shrinks, and moves apologetically, sort of shuffling over. Companions on the “right” side somewhat chide them, as if they knew all along (which they might). No such luck if there are mulitiple cloggers — often all the “right” spaces are clogged, so walking commuter has to stand still for the rest of the ride.


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