The Utlimate Elevator Article

By Deane Barker on May 10, 2008

Up and Then Down: This is a fascinating article about all aspects of elevators. It’s set amid the story of a guy who got stuck in an elevator for 41 hours, but it touches on things like elevator phobias, the social aspects of elevators, and — more interestingly — the logistical aspects of how elevators work.

Elevator logistics, it turns out, have some serious theoretical issues to resolve.

There are two basic elevatoring metrics. One is handling capacity: your aim is to carry a certain percentage of the building’s population in five minutes. Thirteen per cent is a good target. The other is the interval, or frequency of service: the average round-trip time of one elevator, divided by the number of elevators. In an American office building, you want the interval to be below thirty seconds, and the average waiting time to be about sixty per cent of that. Any longer, and people get upset.

Having elevators work well is not a trivial thing:

The Bronx family-court system, for example, was in a shambles last year because the elevators at its courthouse kept breaking down. (The stairs are closed, owing to security concerns.) This led to hour-long waits, which led to missed court dates, needless arrest warrants, and life-altering family strife.

Even more interesting is the psychology of how humans place themselves in elevators:

Passengers seem to know instinctively how to arrange themselves in an elevator. Two strangers will gravitate to the back corners, a third will stand by the door, at an isosceles remove, until a fourth comes in, at which point passengers three and four will spread toward the front corners, making room, in the center, for a fifth, and so on, like the dots on a die.

This makes me remember a really funny SNL skit with David Schwimmer that I thought was subtly brilliant (pictured at top).

Schwimmer was in an elevator, and people kept coming in and standing…oddly. For instance, he stood in the middle when he was by himself, then dutifully moved to the corner when other people got in. But those people didn’t stand in the opposite corner as expected — they stood right next to him in his corner. In another instance, the only other passenger turned around and faced the back of the car. Schwimmer hesitated for a moment, then did the same.

It was fascinating in that it revealed some of the ingrained psychological and social frameworks we deal with daily and don’t even realize. I can’t find a video of it, but here’s a transcript of the skit, which includes the picture from this post.

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