Why Airports’ Moving Sidewalks Are So Slow

by SharonKurheg

There was a time when I scoffed at the idea of using moving walkways. Didn’t matter if they were at airports, theme parks, or anywhere else, if I had the opportunity to walk without any extra power besides my own body, I did so…and was internally smug about getting to the end of the moving sidewalk before those who were on it (sometimes even before those walking on it…but I admittedly speed walked to do so LOL).

Unfortunately, my asthma has made it clear that I will not be power walking anymore until I see my new pulmonologist (lung doctor) at the end of January. So for the past 6 months or so, I’ve learned to temporarily embrace moving walkways.

Using these new-to-me modes of transportation has taught me a couple of valuable lessons:

  • If I’m having a “good breathing day” (not too hot, not too cold, not humid), I’ll walk on the moving walkways, which has taught me another new thing…people in the U.S. don’t flippin’ know how to WALK ON THE LEFT SIDE, STAND ON THE RIGHT SIDE.
    a sign with a no entry and no entry
  • There was a reason I could get to the end of them on my own two feet faster than those standing on them – they are as slow as molasses.

That first bullet point is just human nature and/or not thinking, I guess. But that second one…why ARE they so slow? I decided to do some research that, fortunately, or unfortunately, brought me down several rabbit holes. Like these:

What’s their proper name?

  • Autowalk
  • Moving pavement
  • Moving sidewalk
  • Moving walkway
  • People-mover
  • Travelator

It’s all good. They all represent, “a slow-moving conveyor mechanism that transports people across a horizontal or inclined plane over a short to medium distance.”

Their history & how they came to be in airports

  • Moving walkways were invented in 1893 (“The first moving walkway debuted at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, in Chicago, Illinois, in the United States as The Great Wharf Moving Sidewalk and was designed by architect Joseph Lyman Silsbee. It had two different divisions: one where passengers were seated, and one where riders could stand or walk.” Thanks, Wikipedia!)
  • The first commercial moving walkway in the U.S. was at a train station in New Jersey, in 1954.
  • Four years later, in 1958, the first moving walkway was installed in an airport – at Love Field, in Dallas.

Why you don’t see them in many places

  • 2 years ago, someone on Quora asked, “Why are moving walkways common in airports, but pretty much nowhere else?” In response, ChatGPT helpfully suggested:
    Moving walkways, also known as moving sidewalks or travelators, are common in airports because they are designed to help people quickly and efficiently move through large, busy spaces. They are particularly useful in airports because they help travelers navigate through crowded and often confusing terminal buildings, and they can help to reduce the physical strain of walking long distances with heavy luggage. Additionally, airports are one of the few places where large numbers of people are regularly moving in the same direction, making them an ideal location for moving walkways.
  • That being said, you may also see them at shopping malls, train stations, and theme parks (Disney and Universal, in particular, use them quite a bit for entry onto and egress from some rides/attractions, as well as in some of their respective parking structures), and other large public spaces.

a moving walkway in a buildingWhy they’re so slow

  • I found articles going as far back as 2009 to explain why moving sidewalks are so slow. The article, from the Irish Independent, said researchers discovered people walk marginally faster on moving sidewalks than on regular ground. But because some people stand on moving sidewalks, the “walkers” have to maneuver around them, slow down while passing them, etc., slows even the “walkers” down.
  • Andy Larsen did a piece in the Salt Lake Tribune in February 2022, about why the moving sidewalks at Salt Lake City International Airport were so slow. He also apparently went down even more rabbit holes than me. His post was fascinating, by the way.
  • A conversation on Reddit suggested some people think moving sidewalks are so slow that they’re overrated.

Their dangers

More than one person has been injured or even died on moving sidewalks, after a body part or their clothing has gotten stuck, or they’ve lost their balance and fallen. Just this past summer, a woman’s leg had to be amputated at Bangkok’s Don Mueang International Airport after she fell on a moving sidewalk and her leg got sucked into the gears.

Why some airports are removing moving sidewalks

  • Orlando International Airport used to have a moving walkway in the space between the TSA security areas for Terminals A & B. Those were removed a few years ago, in favor of more seating.
  • Eight moving walkways were removed from Harry Reid (then McCarran) Airport in 2021 due to what was described as “maintenance costs.”
  • Other airports have removed their moving sidewalks for financial reasons. CNN reported this summer that In Newark, Chicago and other cities’ airport terminals, moving walkways have been removed to make room for more shops and restaurants (although O’Hare said it was, “…“to improve the flow of passengers and enhance the travel experience for our customers.” BTW, O’Hare has also said it has no plans to remove its “Disco Tunnel” moving walkway)

Feature Image (cropped): Paul VanDerWerf / flickr / CC BY 2.0 DEED

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Billy Bob November 20, 2023 - 5:42 pm

I use them but when the idiot ratio is high, I can walk beside them faster than all of the held up people standing there behind one or two impassibles.

RaflW November 20, 2023 - 6:55 pm

At DIA where there are two sets of walks in each direction, I wish the inner belts could be faster, like passing lanes.
But people would not read the signs, not handle the acceleration/decel, and it would fail.
Or, could the outer ones be standing, and the inner for walkers only?
Probably not.
Human nature is, well, what it is.

Christian November 20, 2023 - 10:39 pm

Good information. This one had been subtly bothering me like an itch you don’t quite realize you have. It’s nice to be rid of the itch although I wish airports would install more of these rather than removing them but passengers can’t stop in stores if they’re passing by on the moving sidewalk so passenger comfort goes by the wayside.


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