The Accidental Music of Imperfect Escalators

Roman Mars (RM): This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

RM: This is the first joke I ever really noticed as a design joke.

Mitch Hedberg (MH):I like an escalator, man. Because an escalator can never break. It can only become stairs.

RM: That’s Mitch Hedberg.

MH: There would never be “escalator temporarily out of order” sign. Only “an escalator is temporarily stairs.” Sorry for the convenience.

RM: Being designed to elegantly deal with the extreme failure case is probably an underappreciated design element. But it really is one of the things that makes an escalator great. Worst case, they’re stairs. See how far you get in a broken elevator.

SG: I bet everyone wants escalators. Enjoying that design aspect too. And we’re getting our cardio!

RM: That’s 99% Invisible’s own Sam Greenspan, walking up an escalator in a metro station in DC.

RM: Ever since the Industrial Revolution, when it became possible for products to be designed just once and then mass-produced, it has been the slight failures and imperfections and the individual wear and tear intorduced by human use that transforms a quality mass-produced product into a thing we actually love. Your worn-in blue jeans. Your grandmother’s iron skillet. The initial design determined its quality. But it’s their, post-manufacturing imperfections that make them comfortable and make them lovelable. That make them yours. And if you think that a slightly broken escalator can’t be loveable, well maybe you haven’t been paying attention.

SG: An escalator on a DC metro platform is like a fine wine. It’s better with age and without any industrial lubricant.

RM: Sam lives in Baltimore now. But he lived in DC for a few years. He said that this sound came to embody the excitement he felt from living in a city.

SG: Yeah, I mean I grew up in one of Florida’s most depressing suburbs. It’s just miles and miles of highways and culs-de-sac.

RM: Very nice.

SG: Thank you! So when I moved to DC, I took public transit everywhere, just because I could. The DC metro system- it’s not the best in the world, but it’s pretty good. Although a lot of people do lament the poor condition of the metro’s escalators. Some are just flat-out broken and then there are some that work but make these crazy noises. Which, you know, annoy a lot of people, but for me, I found that a scronking escalator was like this little trumpeter announcing how awesome it was to live in the city.

RM: It turns out that someone else loves this sound too.

SG: So this is Chris Richards.

Chris Richards (CR): I’m the pop music critic at The Washington Post.

RM: Chris was also in a band called Q And Not U. He wrote a kind of appreciation of the metro escalators for the Post.

CR: We’re at the Farragut North metro station in Washington DC on the north side of L street and Connecticut avenue.

SG: Chris told me that he had never really noticed the sound that the escalators made, until one day when he was on a bit of free jazz kick.

CR: Having my ear trained for those sort of breath on brass kind of sounds, I think maybe turning the corner to come down the escalators one day, I thought “oh, there’s a saxophone player playing at the bottom of the metro. But it wasn’t that at all. It was just the escalators kind of like wonking and screeching away. I don’t know if they were always this loud.

SG: On the escalator there’s a plastic element on the side of each step that keeps it from rubbing against the metal siding. A lubricant keeps it all running smoothly. But when it rains or snows, the lubrication wears off.

CR: So what you’re hearing when you hear these kind of moaning, squawks is the steel stairs sort of rubbing up and chaffing against that plastic element when it’s gotten a little too dry. Kind of like a beautiful, serendipitous aftershock of the wear and tear that these escalators are facing. It sounds like music!

SG: And, like any good music critic, Chris started classifying the different styles of metro escalator. So here at Farragut North, the escalators might sounds like…

CR: Whales mating or something like that.

SG: Whereas the escalator at U Street

CR: Kind of sounded like Indian drone music.

SG: And at Columbia Heights

CR: An aviary of chrome-throated ravens taunting you as you descend into your workday.

RM: We understand that we could be over romanticizing a scronking and squeaking escalator.

SG: You can talk all day about apprecitating the ambient soundscape around you and get really into athetisized ways of listening- Chris Richards was into this, by the way- but you could also just as easily say, you know, hey, this is all noise.

CR: I think it’s all really in the ear of the beholder so, yeah.

SG: It is totally understandable that people wouldn’t appreciate a screeching escalator. Chris actually told me that when he called up Metro for his story, their PR people didn’t believe him. They thought he was writing some big expose about escalator failure.

CR: Quite the opposite, really. I was trying to say, you know, even though these things are a little bit beat down, this is a wonderful little residual bonus.

SG: My point of view is if you’re going to be subjected to some kind of sensory experience of which you have no control, every single day, then it’s to your benefit. You know, why not try to enjoy something. Because there’s enough things in life to be stressed out about.

CR: As much as people complain about all the sounds that cities make and all the noises that cities make, I think those noises define it and, you know, really become our environment. Sound can be an irritation or it can be information.

SG: Chris got me hoping the escalators never get fixed. Except the ones that just straight up don’t work. The escalator at the Wheaton stop? It is the longest escalator in the Western Hemisphere! It takes three minutes to ride to the top when it’s working!

RM: Let’s hope that the Wheaton escalator doesn’t conveniently become stairs anytime soon.

Comments (5)

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  1. Irena

    My favorite sound that is noise is the sound that trains would make at night in Cincinnati.

    I lived too far away from the tracks to hear the ‘chug chug chug’ or the actual sounds of the wheels turning, or even the sound of the horns, but for some reason on certain nights the sound of the brakes would travel all the way across the city from the train yards. They made a chorus of long, atmospheric notes, softened by the air, a little melancholy but very restful. The noise was somehow both high pitched and low pitched at the same time. I think this was most common on nights when it had rained during the day, and I would prop my window open to listen and smell the wet earth as I went to sleep.

  2. Katie

    i have a few favorite sounds…some probably more unique than others.

    i love the sound of a basketball going through a net and the sound of sneakers on a shiny basketball court
    i love the sound of cleats on cement
    i love the sound of heavy rain and thunder
    i could listen to a baby babble for hours

  3. Anne Debevoise

    I grew up in Montgomery Co. and went to UMD. Those escalators are the sound of home. When I was taking Japanese Art History 1500-Present the professor had us going to Freer and Sackler Galleries a lot. If any of you have been, you know about the Peacock Room. That room has a really interesting history of design! Look it up!

  4. Lindsey N.

    I grew up next to one of the main highways of my state. There was the backyard, a thin chain-linked fence, some trees and shrubs then BAM highway. That being said I love the sound of traffic. I would spend long stretches of time on the swing-set staring at the cars that would drive by in the afternoons. I would walk to my bus-stop to the sound of rush hour in the morning on my way to school. It was never truly quiet and because of that, I never really felt lonely. I took this comfort for granted and I didn’t realize it until I moved to a new, developing neighborhood out in the country.

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