We are all about to realize how much we took elevators for granted

Elevators are the unsung heroes of modern urbanism, without which tall and slender buildings would not have been built. So critical are elevators to a building’s height that the weight of the elevator cables constrains the height of super-tall buildings.

Elevators also deliver bragging rights or prestige to a skyscraper’s builders, owners and residents, but they may emerge as bottlenecks during the COVID-19 era, limiting how many people can be transported vertically in a reasonable amount of time.

Physical distancing requirements to keep individuals two metres apart clearly limit the number of people who can share an elevator. Elevator systems are designed to operate at 80-per-cent capacity during periods of high demand, but the throughput capacity could be much lower with COVID-19-mandated restrictions, thus slowing access to and from mid- and high-rise floors during the morning, noon and early evening rushes.

Office building managers are concerned about future regulations and the public health implications of sharing small closed spaces. Assuming a return to full occupancy, it could take several hours to populate a building in the morning if elevators are limited to 10 to 30 per cent of capacity, and long queues will form at street level.

Restricting operations could also mean that once workers reach their designated floor, they might not be allowed to use the elevators again until they leave for the day. At that point, it might again take hours to depopulate the building. Workers could be restricted to time windows to use the elevators to enter and leave the building.

The regimented use of building amenities might take some shine off the glamour of being on the higher floors. It could also encourage workers to work from home, rather than queuing up to wait their turn to board the elevators. The lack of viable alternatives for vertical transportation — staircases are no better — that comply with physical distancing restrictions and offer adequate throughput capacities will be a challenge. It may also impact the financial viability of buildings in the long run.

Stephen Graham, a professor of Cities and Society at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom, writing in the Theory, Culture, and Society journal, noted that so much is written about horizontal mobility on roads and transit networks, yet researchers have “almost completely neglected the cultural geographies and politics of vertical transportation.” In vertical cities such as Hong Kong, he pointed out, residents “travel almost as far vertically using elevators as they do horizontally by foot, bus or subway.”

There are an estimated one million elevators in the United States and Canada, and another 10 million elsewhere. In the U.S. alone, elevators facilitate 18 billion passenger trips in a normal year. They are also the safest mode of personal transportation.

Graham also described the quest for higher elevator speeds needed to construct even taller buildings. Just like the Bullet Train, Japanese engineers are at the forefront of designing super-fast elevators, some reaching a speed of 60 km/h. In suburban Tokyo, a 213-metre tall building, known as G1 Tower, is one of the highest elevator research tower, which is operated by Hitachi Corp. Kone Corp. uses 350-metre research elevators that are not “elevated” but dug in the ground at an unused mine in Helsinki.

Elevators have a stellar safety record, but they are not much help in times of crisis. Their use is even forbidden during fires and earthquakes, forcing occupants to use the stairs. But during COVID-19, clustering people in narrow staircases, even for fire drills, might pose additional challenges.  

Erica Kuligowski, a social research scientist in the U.S., and others simulated the evacuation times for the World Trade Center under different occupancy scenarios on Sept. 11, 2001. Their results, published in Fire Technology, revealed it would have taken between 92 and 142 minutes to evacuate a tower. They also found that approximately 14,000 occupants would not have been able to evacuate in time from the two towers assuming full occupancy.

Elevators are more than a mode of transportation. They convey images of esteem and opulence in super-tall buildings used by high-income cohorts. Elevators have also become part of the social and business lexicon. Business students are taught to perfect their “elevator pitch,” and elevator music is a genre in itself, intended to be part of the ambience but not to attract attention.

COVID-19 has stripped elevators of their relative obscurity. Building managers, landlords, residents and tenants will be squarely focused on how to safely use elevators that are transporting hundreds of millions to their chosen destinations multiple times each day.

The economic feasibility of tall buildings is now tied, at least partially, to throughput capacities of elevators, a hitherto unremarked mode of transportation. 

Murtaza Haider is a professor of Real Estate Management at Ryerson University. Stephen Moranis is a real estate industry veteran. They can be reached at www.hmbulletin.com.

Appeared earlier in the National Post on June 15, 2020.