Richard Smith: A proposal that could be implemented today and save 5000 lives

Richard SmithI’ve had a brainwave. It’s a proposal that could be implemented today and save the UK 5000 lives a year (at a rough guess.) The proposal is to stop all escalators immediately.

I must confess that my brainwave, brilliant and simple as it is, has ignoble origins. Living in London and travelling regularly on the tube, I get irritated by the fact that very few people walk on escalators. But at least on the London tube there is the ancient tradition of standing on the right if you are not walking, which does allow the type As like me (those who flush the loo before they finish peeing) to climb the stairs two at a time. In the US, even in New York, nobody walks on escalators—providing the inspiration for a Youtube video in which two people “stuck” on an escalator that stops shouts for help.  

My pet hate is Terminal 5 at Heathrow, where I spend far too much time and which has some of the world’s longest escalators: after a 10 hour flight when I’m longing to walk I have to stand behind crowds of gormless travellers blocking the escalators.

My irritation is reaching the point where like a madman I will start shouting at people motionless on escalators: “Do you not realise, you fools, that physical exercise is the closest thing we have to a panacea? It’s good for brains, minds, hearts, lungs, muscles, joints, relationships, and much else with almost no side effects—unless you play American football. You are both wasting your health and your time. START MOVING.”

How, you ask, will my proposal to stop all escalators save 5000 lives a year? Of course, I haven’t done the calculation—but that seems about the right order. It will be more than 50 and less than 50 000. The main way that switching off escalators will benefit health is through increasing physical activity. Most people, including most doctors, fail to appreciate the substantial benefits of physical activity, but they are beautifully illustrated on a Youtube video that has gone viral called—”What is the single best thing we can do for our health?

Stopping all escalators will also save lives through reducing carbon emissions. I remember enough physics to know that shifting all those megatons of human flesh against gravity must generate huge amounts of carbon. My proposal is truly win win—and can be implemented literally with the flick of a few switches.

And once my proposal is adopted to universal acclaim we’ll move onto lifts. I’m excited by thinking how popular I will be with all those people living on the upper floors of high rise flats—because the higher they live the more benefit they will receive and the greater their life expectancy.

RS was the editor of the BMJ until 2004 and is director of the United Health Group’s chronic disease initiative.