About three months ago, my wife Diane and I noticed that the Indianapolis hotel where we were staying had an elevator that required the use of a key card to access the floors with guest rooms.
Of course, a burglar could simply follow someone onto the elevator and get off on the same floor. Nevertheless, the key card gave a comforting sense of false security.
Then just a few weeks ago, we were at the downtown Marriott in New Orleans. They had recently changed their elevator system. Instead of the usual up and down buttons, there was a keypad, on which you entered your floor number. The keypad then indicated which of the seven elevator cars would take you to your floor.
Disconcertingly, there were no buttons to push inside the car, since it already knew where you were going. The system worked fine, was fairly fast and seemed to be an improvement over the usual elevator car roulette. Almost everyone commented about it.
It wasn’t all that great, however, for distractible people like me who punch in their number and then look away to check their e-mail and fail to notice what car they have been assigned. Our grandchildren wouldn’t like it either, because it cuts down on the number of buttons you get to push (or argue over pushing).
This system is called “The Schindler ID Traction Elevator” and they claim it can reduce average traveling time by up to 30 percent. There is even a You Tube video of the Marriott elevator. The Marriott video only has 77 views, compared to thousands of views of the video of the Schindler over at the New Orleans Sheraton. The Sheraton’s elevator computer must also serve hot hors d’œuvres and cocktails.
Vertical-movement devices have been around for a long time. They were mentioned in the writings of the Roman architect Vitruvius, who says that Archimedes built his first elevator in 236 B.C. Personally, I have always been attracted to elevators and escalators. As a child, I considered them sort of thrill rides. According to the National Elevator Industry Inc., there are about 700,000 elevators and 35,000 escalators in the United States, with more than 325 million daily riders.
People have always been suspicious of elevators. In New Albany, the Hedden House was one of the first private residences to have its own elevator. In Jeffersonville, the Howard family, of steamboat fame, had planned to add an elevator to their beautiful new mansion in the late 1800s. They changed their mind when a Howard relative was injured in an elevator accident in which someone was killed. In 1852, Elisha Otis patented the first safety elevator, which helps prevent the fall of the cab if the cable is accidentally severed.
Today, elevators are required to have a variety of redundancies and safety devices, including a heavy-duty shock absorber system at the bottom of the shaft if all else fails. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are about 27 elevator-related fatalities each year. The fatality rate for taking an automobile ride is about 4,400 times higher than the rate for an elevator ride.
The escalator is an even safer option. A 2008 study found an injury rate of only 7.8 per 100,000 for elders and most of these were falls. There were no reported deaths. A 2006 study of youngsters found an even smaller injury rate (2.6). Regardless, many people are still afraid to ride in elevators and escalators. Children often worry that the escalator might devour them, while adults may feel trapped or claustrophobic.
Last year, Kyrie O’Connor writing in the Houston Chronicle differentiated between people who are escalator “standers” and “walkers”. She believes that Houston is dominated by standers. She says these folks (like me) stand around “as if they were on a conveyor belt or carnival ride.”
This is opposed to people hailing from the northeast, who tend to be walkers. O’Connor observed that most walkers were men and dress in business attire, rather than casual clothing.
Blogger H. Sandman speculates that “standers” are unexcited, lazy or maybe out of shape. He also describes them as possibly aimless, resigned and lacking anywhere important to go. Walkers are characterized as being impatient, driven and restless. As a confirmed stander, I can’t understand why those walkers just don’t take the stairs if they are in such an all-fired hurry.
Vertical movement also has other psychological features. Larry Sanna at the University of North Carolina found that the direction people travel when moving vertically can actually influence their behavior. He noted that upwards movement is often used as a metaphor for virtue, such as in the phrases “moral high ground” and “uplifting.” Downward movement, on the other hand, has negative connotations, such as “decline” and “the lowest of the low.”
Elevator behavior also has certain norms. According to New Yorker magazine staff writer Nick Paumgarten, when strangers ride elevators they regulate their position within the enclosed space to maintain a maximum distance from each other. For example, if there are two people, they will stand in opposite corners. If there are three, they form a triangle. Four people stand in a square configuration and so on.
Lee Gray from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte says that elevators “are socially very interesting, but often very awkward places.” He says people’s elevator movements are as predetermined as a square dance.
All this relates to the notion of personal space. Harvard anthropologist Edward T. Hall argued that personal space is the equivalent of an animal’s territory and that when it is violated, people feel particularly uneasy. In studies of primates and other animals forced to be in proximity, at first they try to minimize contact, act unobtrusive, and display discomfort, but the tight quarters often lead to aggressive outbursts.
Besides safety concerns, lack of control is one of the main causes of elevator phobia or “lift anxiety.” Paumgarten says that the “door close” button does not actually work (as I always suspected) on most older elevators. He claims that the buttons were installed to serve as a placebo to give riders an illusion of control.
Rebekah Rousi from the University of Jyväskylä, Finland, studied elevators use in Australia and found that riders tended to talk mostly about the mechanical aspects of elevators and safety issues when interviewed. She says it was clear that users felt most safe when they perceive their own level of control as greatest.
Speaking of safety, Diane and I once visited the old building where I now work before it was renovated. It was on the weekend and we foolishly rode on a tiny ancient elevator, which must have been one of the first elevators installed in Jeffersonville. I don’t know what we were thinking, but we easily could have been trapped there for days.
The Elevator Escalator Safety Foundation provides the following safety tips for elevator riders: 1. Use the door-open button to hold the doors open for slower riders, rather than trying to push them open (even if most of the buttons are mainly decorative); 2. Keep items and clothing clear of the doors; 3. Remain in the elevator car in case of emergency. (Do not crawl on top of the elevator car.); 4. Take the stairs if a fire may be present; and we would add 5. Think twice about riding an elevator in an abandoned building that is literally older than the invention of the airplane.
From a column first published in the Southern Indiana News and Tribune