The Humble, Essential and Safe Elevator

Stuck in an express elevator around the 13th floor of the McGraw-Hill office in New York for 41 hours, Nicholas White’s story should be somewhat fear-provoking.

Intersperse with information on the importance of elevators in modern cities, a profile of elevator consultant James Fortune and a discussion on the psychology of elevators, the article somehow becomes reassuring instead.

Two things make tall buildings possible: the steel frame and the safety elevator. The elevator […] is to the city what paper is to reading and gunpowder is to war. Without the elevator, there would be no verticality, no density, and, without these, none of the urban advantages of energy efficiency, economic productivity, and cultural ferment. […] And the elevator is energy-efficient—the counterweight does a great deal of the work, and the new systems these days regenerate electricity. The elevator is a hybrid, by design.

This quote from a spokesman for elevator company Otis:

We’ll wait ten to fifteen minutes for a train, without complaining, […] but wait thirty seconds for an elevator and the world’s coming to an end. Which means, really, that we’ve done a good job. We deliver short waits. But why are we held to a different standard?

and the various discussions on the psychology of elevator spacing brings to mind this quote from Re-creating the Corporation by the recently deceased organisational theorist, Russell Ackoff:

There is a classic case in which the tenants of a large office building complained about the increasingly poor elevator service. A consulting firm specializing in elevator-related problems was employed to deal with the situation. It first established that average waiting time for elevators was too long. It then evaluated the possibilities of adding elevators, replacing existing elevators with faster ones, and introducing computer controls to improve utilization of elevators. For various reasons, none of these turned out to be satisfactory. The engineers declared the problem to be unsolvable.

When exposed to the problem, a young psychologist employed in the building’s personnel department made a simple suggestion that dissolved the problem. Unlike the engineers who saw the service as too slow, he saw the problem as one deriving from the boredom of those waiting for an elevator. So he decided they should be given something to do. He suggested putting mirrors in the elevator lobbies to occupy those waiting by enabling them to look at themselves and others without appearing to do so. The mirrors were put up and complaints stopped. In fact, some of the previously complaining tenants congratulated management on improvement of the elevator service.

via Kottke



3 responses to “The Humble, Essential and Safe Elevator”

  1. You’d probably enjoy this book

    I didn’t finish it. But I really enjoyed it, if you know what I mean. (If not, it’s a bit like video games –

  2. The Intuitionist looks like a good read… now on my list.

    This is a phrase I hope to use from now on: ‘I didn’t finish the book, but I really enjoyed it’. I continue reading books long after I should have put them down. Long after I have got everything I wanted from it. In fact, even poor books I read to the end, hoping they will get better, hoping the act of finishing will redeem it, somehow.

    It doesn’t.

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