What Can We Learn From Elevators?

Image by flickr user wilding.andrew.

The elevator is the world’s most used form of transit. Full stop.

Arguably, it defines contemporary urban culture even more than the private automobile. It is so common, so normal, we never even think about it. It is ubiquitous to the point of invisibility.

According to a wonderful article about elevators in the New Yorker, there are eleven billion elevator trips taken in New York City every year; 30 million every day.

Meanwhile, Otis (the world’s largest manufacturer of “vertical transportation” devices) claims their elevators move the equivalent of the world’s population every nine days.

Basically, without the elevator cities as we currently know them would disappear and be replaced with something entirely different than what we currently experience. Low-rise, European cities of no more than 6 stories would become the norm. And because density couldn’t be packed into one or two spots surrounded by a sea of bungalows, places like Tampa would be replaced with places like Vienna overnight.

Hong Kong would cease to exist entirely.

And yet they’re as safe as can be. Elevator accidents are incredibly rare. Cabins free-falling towards the ground (as one might see in the movies) for all intents and purposes just don’t happen.

Says the New Yorker: “An average of twenty-six people die in (or on) elevators in the United States every year, but most of these are people being paid to work on them. That may still seem like a lot, until you consider that that many die in automobiles every five hours (emphasis mine).”

So next time someone says to you that gondolas and cable transit aren’t safe, just remind them that elevators and gondolas are virtually the same technology – that is, a box attached to a very, very strong rope.

And like elevators, gondolas are about as safe a transit technology as there is.

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