Next time you’re riding Metro near the Mall, see if you can pick out which middle-school field-trippers are local and which are from out of town. Hint: Ignore the ball caps and observe where the little scholars stand on the escalator. If they obediently hug the right-hand banister, they hail from Washington. If they sprawl across the left side, directly in your path, they are “escaleftors,” and chances are they’re bunking in a hotel room.
Invented for a 2005 ad campaign to boost “awareness of safety/courtesy issues,” according to Metro spokeswoman Morgan Dye, “escaleftor” hasn’t caught on in everyday parlance. But “stand right, walk left” is such a cultural imperative in Washington that there’s a word for those who run afoul of it.
Metro’s escalators run very deep, by necessity and design: By the time the federal government got around to planning a subway, sewage pipes and other infrastructure had been laid, mostly in the 1960s, closer to the surface—there was nowhere to go but down. There were also natural obstacles: To get from Dupont Circle to Woodley Park, WMATA originally proposed a bridge over Rock Creek Park. But the National Park Service requested that it dig a tunnel, leaving two stations “with agonizingly slow, albeit majestic, escalators,” as George Mason University professor Zachary M. Schrag puts it in The Great Society Subway, his history of Metro. The escalators, gliding through their smooth concrete tubes, also framed subterranean travel as a jet-age convenience by echoing Eero Saarinen’s modernist terminals at Dulles Airport.
Yet crowded with lollygagging tourists, constantly closing for maintenance, or simply breaking down, Metro escalators rarely soar. WMATA’s most forward-thinking idea may have been giving the deepest stations three escalators each—one going up, one going down, one being serviced. “Pretty good design,” Schrag says.
“Escaleftor” isn’t as pejorative-sounding as the New York City MTA’s recent target: “manspreading,” which came up in a campaign against the macho habit of taking up multiple seats by spreading one’s legs. It’s hard to imagine that the shame of being tagged an escaleftor would deter offenders as efficiently as a polite request or brusquely shoving by. Not so, however, with the type WMATA defines as a “person who becomes a human speed bump by suddenly stopping at the top or bottom of Metro escalators.” No one would want to be called an “escalump.”
This article appears in our June 2015 issue of Washingtonian.