The global engineer

E&T appraises travelators (or moving walkways) - a technology that seems to be slowing down with time.

I've been rolling around the world in the last couple of months. I've seen the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London and the Virgin of Guadalupe, the most visited shrine in all the Americas, on the edge of Mexico City. What connects these two mega tourist sites - each attracting millions of visitors a year - is the technology that trundles you past them. To see the Virgin or the Coronation Crown, you have to board a travelator and be transported at its pace - not your own - past the wonder of the cloak emblazoned with the Virgin's image or the Koh-i-Noor diamond.

The purpose of this slow travel is to regulate the throng. Travelators are a 21st century answer to tourist crowd control. But, though they may work for the attraction, they rarely work for those attracted to it. A trip on a travelator inevitably condemns you to be part of a herd. And a moving walkway equalises everything you see. Different jewels, from the most mundane to the simply stunning, must all be given exactly the same amount of attention, as you'll be shunted past each at exactly the same speed.

In other places, moving walkways may be more welcome. We don't want to take 20 minutes to walk to the departure gate at Frankfurt International or Heathrow. At an airport, being hurried along chimes with our own need to get there faster. Even here, however, the moving walkway may not be doing its job. This summer, researchers at Princeton University discovered that airport travelators actually slow you down, as passengers instinctively reduce their speed to save energy, causing blockages. You'd be better off walking.

The world's fair and the trottoir roulant

It's odd that we don't yet know how to use travelators, as they've been trundling along for a very long time. In 1871, New York wine merchant Albert Speer patented the first 'endless travelling sidewalk', proposing an elevated walkway all the way along Broadway speeding up to 30kmph. But Speer failed to find a backer, and his travelling sidewalk ground to a halt.

The idea of a people mover rumbled along for decades. But it wasn't fully realised until Paris hosted the World's Fair in 1900, unveiling its vision for the future of transport. Below ground was the stylish Metro; above ground was the trottoir roulant, a moving walkway that circled the fair in a 3km loop, its articulated wooden segments "gliding around like a wooden serpent with a tail in its mouth", according to one report, with "the din made by the lids of 20 million Brobdingnagian kettles", according to another, more Swiftian, account. Some people brought folding chairs to sit on while rolling along. One woman even gave birth in transit, naming her boy Trottoir Roulant Benost. A new form of traveller was born.

But after this promising start, travelators stalled. The first moving walkway in an airport wasn't installed until 1958 at Love Field in Dallas, Texas. Installation has always been a problem, as it had seemed difficult to install a walkway in a pre-existing building. In the 1990s, John Loder developed a new system of 'retro-fitable moving walkways', capable of being installed on existing floors as the belt surface was only 25cm above floor level, using thin slider belts moving over flat metal plates. This design had been used for moving airport baggage and heavy industrial material for many years, but had not been thought fit for human cargo, as it was unclear how we could step safely from a moving walkway to the stationary terminus. It still is. Getting on and off is often a cause of injury, in particular for those who've been enthusiastic with the duty free, or who wear bifocal lenses. But the walkways moved on. Loderway Moving Walkway company installed trial systems at Flinders Street Station in Melbourne and Brisbane Airport.

In Europe, the travelator's progress continues to stall. A high-speed walkway was installed in Montparnasse Bienvenue metro station in Paris in 2002. At first, it sped along at 12km/h, but as people began to topple over, it was slowed to 9km/h. Yellow-jacketed metro staff filtered out those who couldn't use it. Users had to have at least one hand free to hold on to the moving handrail, so couldn't be carrying too much shopping. Unlike airport walkways, it was estimated that if a commuter used such a walkway twice a day, it would save 15 minutes per week, or ten hours per year. That's time to read three novels. But due to technical difficulties and continual breakdowns, the Montparnasse Bienvenue trottoir was shut down.

Yet travelators are still being built, longer and longer, if slower and slower. There are now inclined versions, such as at Eurostar's London terminus, so, unlike escalators, you can take a trolley on them. Trolleys either have a brake that is automatically applied when the handle is released, strong magnets to adhere to the floor, or specially designed wheels that secure the cart in the grooves in the ramp.

Travelators have long been seen as the future form of transport: from HG Wells' science fiction novels to the movie 'Metropolis'. But where they are going is uncertain. It's recently been suggested that the buildings, not their occupants, should be put on moving walkways, so we could just hang around waiting for the right front door to arrive in front of us. Perhaps we could do that with the Tower of London? So that we all just stand to attention, waiting for the Coronation Crown.

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