Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Wooden Escalators

Last week, I rode the wooden escalators at Macy's from the 1st to 9th floor and down again. It's a ride I enjoy, and one I haven't taken in several years. I was sad to see that many of the wooden steps have been replaced with metal steps since I last rode them, though the sides remain wood.

Many people love the wooden escalators at Macy's including Forgotten NY, who did a story on them a few years ago.

A few days after my ride, a child lost a finger in those escalators, and he is not the first to do so.

This upsetting accident has inspired an outcry against the vintage escalators. Commenters at places like the Post are saying, "Macy should get with the program, and install new escalators that avoid potential disaster. Them old Wooden escalator have been hazardous for years."

And "Macy's should retire those old escalators and put new ones. I know that they want to keep the charm of the old place, but when a child's finger is severed and other accidents have occurred because of them, it's time to take the escalators out. Take them to a museum or something."

But are the wooden escalators really more dangerous than metal ones?

You can see in the shot above that the grooves where the wooden treads meet the comb-plate are quite a bit wider than they are in the metal treads, shown below. So it's possible that the wooden stairs are more hazardous to small fingers, which may also get caught in the gaps between steps and sidewalls.

However, the child was not riding on Macy's wood-stepped escalator.

The Post reports that the child was riding on the third floor with his mother when the accident happened. Other sources say it was the first floor. Either way, that means he wasn't on a wooden escalator--he was on a wooden-sided escalator with metal steps, because at Macy's the only all-wood escalators run up and down between the 8th and 9th floors.

This escalator below is one of two, a mated pair (one goes up, the other goes down), and it is the last in Macy's wood-stepped escalator line. Riding those wooden steps is special. They make a clickety-clack sound, like the Cyclone at Coney slowly climbing to its peak. They are good stairs, dating back to the 1920s.

No one wants kids to lose fingers, but let's not convict these escalators without a fair trial. Are they statistically more dangerous than other escalators? Consumer Watch reports that approximately 1,200 "entrapment" accidents happen on escalators every year, and 6,000 annual riders end up at the emergency room. Most of them, it is safe to assume, don't get hurt on Macy's wooden escalators.

If Macy's is compelled to replace the escalators, as the boy's mother wants to see happen, it seems they could simply retrofit all of them with new metal steps with narrower gaps to protect fingers, and that they could leave the wooden sides at least--though I, personally, would miss the wooden steps.

Whichever way it goes, these artifacts of the city are an endangered species. If you want to experience the clickety-clack, go now, before you're riding Macy's last wooden escalator in a museum.


Anonymous said...

The childproof-the-world mentality must be stopped. The world is a dangerous place. Good parenting is tending your child and teaching it to navigate the world as it is.

Every good parent knows that they need to monitor their child while on an escalator. Signs are posted on most escalators about its risks. If this mother had been attentive, the kid would not have been harmed. She should work on her parenting skills instead of deflecting blame.

Anonymous said...

As a lifelong escalator rider the only time I have seen people get hurt on them is when they were playing on them or being careless (clothes, shoe string caught) or the escalator was defective (stopped suddenly). If you ride the the escalator facing forward with hands on rails and step off you will be fine. I see kids whose parents don't teach them that escalators can be dangerous and that they need to ride them safely. Let's start there. It is probably safe to assume this child's mother was not right there with him ensuring he was riding safely. When I ride an escalator with a small child I stand right next to them or right behind them to make sure they don't do anything careless. Let's start at home and then move from there.

Unknown said...

I'm sorry, but as the adult in my little parent/child group, I regard it as my responsibility to to keep my kid's hands out of places they might get hurt. There's a reason every single escalator in the country has a little placard on it showing an adult HOLDING a child's hand. (I have problems with the proliferation of these sorts of warning signs, but that's another issue all together.)

All mechanical things are dangerous, no matter how old (or new) they are. They lack something that we, as reasoning beings, have; the ability to say, "Maybe that's not a good idea."

Jill said...

One legend of the Macy's wooden escalators I was told as a child was that there used to be big problems when fashionable stiletto heels were getting stuck in the grates. I think of it every time I ride those escalators.

Tim said...

Accidents happen. To pin the blame on the wooden escalator as being the cause of the accident is asinine. It could and would have happened on a state of the art escalator as well. if a few thousand people are hurt (6000) per year and 35 billion trips are made on escalators, that works out to .000000017% of escalator rides will result in an accident. If you applied that mother's logic to cars, for instance, we'd all be driving horse carriages. I like the wooden escalators-they evoke the charm of a bygone era and are totally appropriate for Macy's. If the escalators were really that dangerous, Macy's has an army of lawyers who would've advised them to get rid of the escalators a long time ago...Personal responsibility has to play into this somehow....

Anonymous said...

The more modern escalators frighten me more - some of them appear much steeper and more dangerous. For instance, the incredibly steep and scary escalator going up to those discount stores in Union Square. It would take just one person carrying loads of shopping bags to drop something or some little kid to fall, which could cause the people behind them to topple backwards. A fall from such a height would be lethal - a finger cut from those wooden escalators pales in comparison.

Laura Goggin Photography said...

Every time I ride those wooden escalators, I think of the horrible fire at Kings Cross Station several years ago:


I like the wood slats, but because of the fire danger, I'm surprised those escalators weren't updated long ago.

Jeremiah Moss said...

i'm glad everyone else said the thing about how you have to hold your kid's hand on the escalators, because i wasn't going to say it.

Anonymous said...

Agree with Anon 9:10 that the childproof the world mentality can go overboard.

You know Jeremiah, tragically a baby was killed by a falling tree branch in the Central Park Zoo last week.

All I could think about (besides the horribleness of it all) was it wouldn't be a surprise if there was a crusade to ban/prune all the trees in the park due to the potential hazard they present.

ish said...

Somewhere I've seen another kind of wooden escalator, one without actual steps, but with rows of curved wooden pieces that create little ledges one must a bit more precariously perch oneself on. Does that ring a bell to anybody? I've long forgotten where I rode this.

Dianne said...

The Macy's wooden escalators are beautiful and fun to ride. Thanks for highlighting them.

Parents are fully responsible for their children's behavior when out in public. Obviously, the injured child was not being properly supervised.

Sebastian said...

Tim, I agree with you. Also according to that logic, they should outlaw windows that can be opened, because of what happened to Eric Clapton's son ("Tears in Heaven"), even though there was a nanny not paying attention. Young children should be holding a parent's hand, older ones should still be in the parent's sight, and holding a handrail....and shoe-laces tied, any loose clothing (e.g. dresses, oversized jackets) should even be hitched a bit if needed and kept away from the sides.

Goggla, it wasn't the wood alone that caused the King's Cross fire. There was all kinds of junk and oil and debris piling up on the steps, and even ending up underneath. Some idiot dropped a cigarette that was still lit (smoking was banned on trains by then, but still tolerated in stations). There was a fog spraying system, that could have saved the day, IF IT WORKED.....and if it was REGULARLY USED (let's say, to TEST IT, to make it WORK)...it could have sprayed off the junk that caught fire in the first place.

Blaming the wooden escalators was mainly more politically convenient. Because nobody wanted to say they dropped the ball with the fire protection equipment.

Ish....what you're talking about was the original Reno escalator, (the Jesse Reno company, nothing to do with Nevada). The first one was in the 19th century in Coney Island, and used metal cleats, but later Renos used wood....Boston's MBTA was the last holdout for these antique escalators, go to http://www.flickr.com/photos/ronslog/3648146/ to see one (for some reason, you may get a warning if you're not registered, but believe me the pic is not obscene at all)

Wooden escalators should be preserved, and even restored. Let's get past all this jingoistic rhetoric. Wooden escalators can be fitted with deflector brushes, emergency stop buttons, comb impact switches and handrail detectors just like "modern" ones. And all the safety devices in the world are no substitute for common sense, and following one's duties to watch those who need watching!