The “Piano Stairs” Experiment

In many situations, escalators are just stupid.


Exhibit A: One really stupid escalator

In an article called “Taken for a Ride: The Insanity of Escalators,” Jeffrey Hill rises to the challenge of describing how wasteful they are:

The national energy use of escalators is estimated at 2.6 billion kilowatt hours per year, equivalent to powering 375,000 houses; its cost is roughly $260 million. What’s harder than stomaching these statistics is finding sources to back them up.

The escalator industry is extremely secretive about pricing and energy specifications on specific models. Even though Kone Inc. provides detailed CAD drawings on their website, their cheery phone representatives claim they can’t verify the figures: “it’s a 9-11 thing.”

Hill notes that the treads are extremely heavy, and quotes a sales rep who claims that each job has to be customized (which adds to the expense). Here’s my favorite quote:

Although quiet and convenient, escalators unfortunately cost more money to install, operate, and maintain than raising a child, and there are 30,000 of them in the United States.

So I was cheered this morning to see Joseph Rose’s Hard Drive blog, where he posts this great video of a little experiment in Stockholm:

What happened afterwards? The video more or less speaks for itself. Those humans are having fun! They’re also using the stairs 66% more than normal. Good for them.

Why can’t we have more keyboard stairs instead of escalators?

Transparency in the News

This all started about a week ago, when Treehugger and the New York Times began reporting that

As of Jan. 1, Pennsylvania is banning labels on milk and dairy products that say it comes from cows that haven’t been treated with artificial bovine growth hormone, which is sometimes known as rBGH or rBST. State officials say the labels are confusing and impossible to verify.

The government maintains that artificial bovine growth hormones are safe, even though they’re illegal in many other countries, critics question their safety, and many American consumers won’t buy milk treated with it.

So instead of exercising the precautionary principle Monsanto has instead spent more than a decade lobbying to get the labels removed. And now Pennsylvania agriculture secretary has agreed, arguing that the labels confuse consumers. “It seems to imply there is a safe, nonsafe dimension.”

Winner: Monsanto.
Loser: the people of Pennsylvania

A few days later, the Federal Reserve changed its reporting policies, publishing economic forecasts four times of year instead of only twice, in order to “take some of the mystery out of its decision-making, disclosing far more information about its economic forecasts — and, implicitly, about its objectives for growth and inflation.”

Now, I’m not an economist (but I’ve dozed through economics lectures), but how can this not be a good thing? Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke gave a speech to the Cato Institute outlining the history of the decision, which is pretty interesting.
An excerpt:

Montagu Norman, the Governor of the Bank of England from 1921 to 1944, reputedly took as his personal motto, “Never explain, never excuse.” Norman’s aphorism exemplified how he and many of his contemporaries viewed the making of monetary policy–as an arcane and esoteric art, best practiced out of public view. Many central bankers of Norman’s time (and, indeed, well into the postwar period) believed that a certain mystique attached to their activities and that allowing the public a glimpse of the inner workings would only usurp the prerogatives of insiders and reduce, if not grievously damage, the effectiveness of policy.

Norman’s perspective on central banking now seems decidedly quaint.

But before you expect to see enlightened beings at the Fed, it’s worth listening to Alan Blinder (an irono-nym, that), a former vice-chairman there.

“If you are a big believer in transparency, which I am, it’s incremental,” Mr. Blinder said. “If I had my druthers, the Fed would be giving out a forecast eight times a year.”

Then again, this may be a tempest in a money temple, especially if Steven Levitt is correct that economists are lousy forecasters.