Rolling Along

The New Scientist Web site has an interesting article about a form of urban transport technology that was widely touted around the beginning of the twentieth century, but never really caught on: the moving sidewalk.   The first moving sidewalks were exhibited at the Chicago World Columbian Exposition in 1893.  The system consisted of three concentric rings: one stationary, and the others moving at 4 and 8 km/hr.  The idea was that pedestrians could, literally, take a step up in speed by moving from the outer to the inner (faster) rings.  Another walkway, called the trottoir roulant, was demonstrated at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900; the 3 km loop atrracted some 7 million visitors.

Later on, in New York City, the idea was introduced as a way of getting people across the Brooklyn Bridge.  At the time, public transit systems ended on both sides of the East River, and apparently the crowding of pedestrians crossing the bridge was becoming a problem.  (Having lived in NYC at the time of a transit strike, and having walked across the bridge a few times, I can sympathize.)   The system proposed was designed for people’s comfort and convenience::

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.

Although an initial plan for the walkways was approved, it was mysteriously removed from later plans.  There is some suspiciion that one or more of the (then private) subway companies may have had a hand in this.

The idea persisted for quite some time, with projects for moving walkways being proposed not only in New York, but in other cities as well.  As the article mentions, the science fiction writer Robert Heinlein featured the idea in his short story, The Roads Must Roll. But it seems that the novelty of the idea, although it initially attracted people’s attention, also worked against its adoption.

“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 ground.”

Humorists got their licks in, too.  One of my favorite comments from the article was a suggestion that all the buildings could be mounted on moving platforms, so that people could just stand still and wait for their destination to come along.

Of course, there are some moving walkways today, in places like airports.  But they are generally small-scale, point A to point B devices, not the kind of integrated system the early proponents had in mind.   Judging from the number of people I have seen having trouble negotiating these simple systems, perhaps sticking with trains and buses was a good idea, after all.

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