The MBTA Should Ditch Escalators

If the MBTA eliminated the moving staircases, they’d save money, and we’d burn some calories.

By | Boston Daily |

Why does the T bother with escalators? (Photo by Patrick Doyle)

As I was making my commute on the Orange Line the other day, I came upon a familiar site for MBTA riders: A busted escalator. It seems like every few weeks—no matter the station—the escalator breaks for a few hours or an entire day. This time, it got me wondering: Why do we even have escalators at most T stations?

Is there any reason that we really need an escalator for the two flights of stairs that are standard at most stops? We can’t handle the 30 steps it takes to get in and out of a station? We really lack that basic aerobic ability? Also: How much is the debt-ridden MBTA actually spending on all that escalator repair?

I contacted the MBTA to try to get some statistics on frequency of escalator shutdowns, as well as repair costs, but they told me that “information is not readily available” and would require a Freedom of Information Act request. Okay, so we look to other data.

TransitBoston was able to get escalator data from the MBTA back in 2007, when the T had 167 escalators in 50 stations. TransitBoston highlighted some interesting stats: State Street had a broken escalator for more than 20 months; an Alewife escalator broke 16 separate times in one month;  and the escalators at Beachmont were out of service 5.9 percent of the time. Every single escalator broke at least once during the year, and many of them broke frequently. For an overall system-wide statistic, an MBTA spokesman told the Globe that escalators were available for usage 98 percent of the time back in 2007. Not bad, but that means that they’re broken 2 percent of the time. Six years later, it seems quite unlikely they’ve gotten any more reliable.

That matters because repairing escalators can be surprisingly costly. Back in 2006, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority (WMATA) estimated that it cost $1.2 million annually just to maintain their 23 “short” escalators—those less than 30 feet high. That’s around $51,000 annually per escalator.

Now, for argument’s sake, let’s say that the MBTA has really great and affordable escalator repairmen, and we only spend $30,000 repairing each escalator, most of which are the “short” types that Washington focused on. That’s still $5 million dollars a year. Couldn’t the MBTA be using that money for something better? Why not replace all those escalators with stairs—sturdy, reliable stairs—and save all that cash?

(Note that I’m not advocating the removal of elevators, which are absolutely necessary for the elderly, disabled, and for strollers—just the escalators. And I’m not talking about removing the escalators rising from Porter Square station, which climb 199 steps out of the bowels of Cambridge. Even Rocky wouldn’t want to trudge up that.)

Beyond the financial savings, though, think about how much more exercise we’d be getting collectively as a city if we were taking the stairs instead of the escalator. Here’s some rough math: The MBTA netted around 400 million passenger trips last year. The Red, Orange, and Blue lines—where the escalators dominate—were responsible for about half of those rides. According to Livestrong, walking up one flight of steps burns around 3 calories. If everyone walks up two flights of stairs for each passenger trip, we’re looking at 1.2 billion calories burned. That adds up to 342,857 pounds burned annually. That’d give us a pretty good head start on the Mayor’s Million Pound Challenge, where we’re currently falling woefully short.

Replacing the escalators with stairs would undoubtedly cost a chunk of change initially, but we’d be potentially saving millions of dollars annually—as well as burning a million pounds of fat every three years. Your move, MBTA.

  • Nancy Gertner

    I hope when you’re my age and I’m long gone, the MBTA gets rid of all the escalators. I’m only sorry I won’t be around for a good laugh.

  • Yuppie Scum

    Boston Magazine should eliminate computers. You’d burn a few calories handwriting your articles.

    You’re kind of a troll.

  • MJ

    Is there any reason that we really need an escalator for the two flights of stairs that are standard at most stops?

    How about we want to encourage use of mass transit??? How about people who, because they use mass transit, have luggage? Or parcels? Or strollers? Or kids we have to carry? Or groceries? Patrick Doyle, let me decide how I exercise. I bet my BMI is better than yours, anyway. What a self centered view of the world you have.

  • http://www.bostonmagazine.com Ed

    I suspect that if the T did adequate maintenance on escalators they would not break down so much. It appears that they don’t maintain them just fix them when they break

  • KdNicewanger

    MJ, saying you lack self-awareness would be like saying Ray Charles lacks the ability to distinguish colors. You call the author self-centered, but if you took this article any more personally you’d be dating it.

    The point of this article was about the best use of the T’s finances, not about your BMI.

    Also, way to miss the part about elevators, which answers every single one of your questions.

    Do people not carry groceries, parcels and luggage up and down the stairs of their apartment buildings? What exactly is your point there, that all landlords should install escalators? (But then your rent would go up because of all the repair bills.)

    Yuppie Scum, please explain how handwriting burns more calories than typing, and also how it can save the MBTA $5 million a year.

  • MK

    I’m glad the T has escalators — those on crutches or carrying rolling suitcases sure find them helpful.