The MBTA Should Ditch Escalators

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

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.