history of moving sidewalks
- I remember a discussion a few years ago about the feasibility of
moving sidewalks for transporting the public in a city. (I was rather
skeptical, myself...) New Scientist (link via Planetizen) has an
article on the history of this technology in its latest issue:
How the moving walkway nearly overtook the Metro
• 06 August 2009 by Paul Collins
• Magazine issue 2720. Subscribe and get 4 free issues.
• For similar stories, visit the Histories Topic Guide
When Paris hosted the Exposition Universelle in 1900, it unveiled its
vision for the future of transport. Below ground, the city's stylish
new Metro made its debut, while above ground was something more avant
garde. The trottoir roulant was a moving walkway that circled the fair
in a 3-kilometre loop, its articulated wooden segments "gliding around
like a wooden serpent with its tail in its mouth", according to one
reporter. Nearly 7 million visitors hopped on. A few even brought
folding chairs, which proved useful when one woman gave birth in
transit. Her child was promptly christened Trottoir Roulant Benost. A
new kind of traveller had been born.
BY 1902, New Yorkers had finally had enough of the rush-hour crush on
the Brooklyn Bridge. Mass transit lines converged at both sides of the
East river, disgorging thousands of travellers onto already packed
streetcars or teeming sidewalks. It was a "daily torture", wrote one
disgruntled commuter. For Bridge Commissioner Gustav Lindenthal there
was an obvious solution: a high-speed moving walkway across the bridge.
The first moving walkway had been unveiled eight years earlier at the
Chicago World's Fair and had proved a huge success at subsequent
expositions in Berlin and Paris. Chicago's walkway, the brainchild of
engineer Max Schmidt, consisted of three rings, the first stationary,
the second moving at 4 kilometres per hour and the third at 8 km/h, an
arrangement that allowed walkers to adjust to each speed before moving
to the next.
With the Brooklyn Bridge walkway, Schmidt upped the ante. This time he
envisaged a loop system at each end of the bridge, with a series of
four ever-faster walkways. Passengers moved from one to another until
finally taking a seat on the benches aboard the fastest, which whisked
them across the bridge at 16 km/h. Because the system ran constantly,
there would be no waiting and little momentum lost on stops and starts.
There would be no waiting and little momentum lost on stops and starts
In fact, the idea of high-speed walkways had been established in New
York longer than anywhere else. Back in 1871, local wine merchant
Alfred Speer patented the first "endless-travelling sidewalk", and
promptly proposed an ambitious elevated moving walkway along Broadway.
It would have zipped pedestrians along at up to 30 km/h, a prospect
with comic possibilities that delighted pundits. One newspaper
suggested that getting trapped with interminable bores would be a
thing of the past: one "has only to suddenly step on the passing
sidewalk to be carried rapidly beyond sight or hearing of his
tormentor". Despite building a working model and lobbying state and
city politicians for a decade, Speer discovered his invention was
simply too visionary to find a backer.
Thirty years on, the idea of a moving walkway across the East river
had more chance of finding favour. Equipped with posts to hold on to
and benches along the fastest ring, the walkways had proved remarkably
safe. "A record of 12,000,000 passengers of both sexes and all ages
carried in Paris, Berlin, and Chicago without accident, tends to
dispel any grave anxiety on this score," declared The New York Times.
Although details about lighting and shelter from the weather were
still to be worked out, Lindenthal approved the proposed walkway -
only to have his recommendation quietly and inexplicably excised from
the public record by New York's mayor, Seth Low. Many years later, the
suspicion arose that a rival company, Brooklyn Rapid Transit, probably
had a hand in burying the idea. BRT, which had a near-monopoly on the
borough's public transport system, would have taken a dim view of
other technologies or operators on its turf.
Undaunted, Schmidt proposed a flurry of similar projects around
Manhattan - running down Broadway, along Wall Street, over the
Williamsburg Bridge and across 23rd and 34th Street. To Schmidt, the
advantages of the moving walkway were so compelling that he was
convinced they would supplant some subways rather than supplement
them. By 1909, he was pushing a massive $70 million scheme that would
provide Manhattan with a network of subterranean moving sidewalks.
So why aren't there any walkways sliding past the Stock Exchange or
beneath the Empire State Building? "That is the question I have
struggled with," says Lee Gray, a historian of moving sidewalks at the
University of North Carolina in Charlotte. "But there was the
political clout of companies pushing subways - and their familiarity.
Everybody gets what a train is, whether it's above ground or below
New York was left pondering whether to install a more modest moving
sidewalk between Times Square and Grand Central Station. But by the
1920s, the bug had bitten other cities: underground walkways were
considered for Atlanta, Boston, Los Angeles and even car-crazy
Detroit, where they would have sped along at a heady 40 km/h. Even the
nation's capital pondered the possibility of propelling politicians
along an underground walkway from their offices to Capitol Hill.
Not surprisingly, science fiction writers were very taken with the
idea. H. G. Wells was a fan, and Robert Heinlein, in his 1940 short
story The Roads Must Roll, envisioned interstate passenger platforms
moving at speeds of up to 160 km/h. Others were more bemused: in the
midst of Schmidt's crusade in Manhattan, the New York Tribune called
for "a moving sidewalk from Texas to New York to bring up cotton and
those cheap winter strawberries", while another newspaper jokingly
suggested that city buildings be placed on moving walkways so that
people could simply stand around and wait for the right one to arrive.
The future, though, is where all these proposals remained. Despite
their advantages, the novelty of moving sidewalks counted against
them. So did the spectre of crippling breakdowns. Unlike an out-of-
service subway car, a broken-down section of sidewalk could not simply
be shunted aside. Parisians had also discovered that one disadvantage
of trains - that they don't run constantly - could be a blessing. An
otherwise admiring account of the trottoir roulant noted that it made
a non-stop racket that alternated between "the din made by the lids of
twenty million Brobdingnagian kettles" and "a high pitched, fierce
It took another half a century and the development of quieter, rubber-
covered surfaces by the Goodyear Tire Company for moving walkways to
make a comeback. Most appeared at increasingly sprawling airports, but
railways weren't immune to their charms either. In 1960, 57 years
after it was first proposed, the Travelator opened at London's Bank
underground station. Even the notion of moving sidewalks to the US
House of Representatives and to Times Square awoke from decades of
slumber, leaving The New York Times to innocently wonder "why this
improvement was not considered when this present [subway] system...
These new walkways, however, were essentially a single conveyor moving
from A to B, far simpler than the earlier many-ringed, multispeed
systems with multiple points of entry and exit. The modern moving
walkway is not a transport system in its own right, more a minor
supplement to other forms of transit. Its most ambitious use in modern
times came in 1961, when the city of Tacoma in Washington built an
underground "escalade" of moving sidewalks. It was boarded up in 1984
after years of urban decay and vandalism.
Paris, however, never entirely lost its dream of a trottoir roulant.
Even before the 1900 expo, there had been proposals for a citywide
system 17 kilometres long. It seemed fitting then that a new
incarnation, the Trottoir Roulant Rapide, was unveiled at Montparnasse
Metro station in 2003.
Instead of three adjacent walkways moving at different speeds, the new
walkway changed speed along its length. The first section moved
slowly. The long midsection rolled along at a brisk 11 km/h - and
deposited passengers onto a final deceleration section in readiness
for their return to terra firma. Dogged by design and reliability
issues, it was taken out of service in May this year, with the French
magazine Rue 89 delivering the stinging verdict that those who had
promoted it "sold this toy as a flagship of French technology". But a
century ago, the trottoir roulant was no toy. It was, for a brief
time, a brisk stroll into the future.
Montreal QC Canada