Mind the (identity) gap

By Evangelos Ntontis and Anne Templeton 

Conventionally in the London Underground, people standing stay on the right side of the escalators, while people who walk use the left side of them. However, Transport for London (TfL) recently conducted some experimental research, through which they found that a standing-only escalator policy (that is, passengers standing on both lines of the escalators) reduced congestion during peak hours by 30%.

Following these findings, on 18th April this year, TfL decided to pilot the standing-only escalators in the busy Holborn station. However, the change was met with resistance by some commuters. This was similar to reaction from commuters during the experiment, and some of the explanations for this behaviour emphasised people’s inherent resistance toward changing their habits, attributed to aspects of human nature that affected people’s ability to weigh their options and take the most beneficial decision. The media largely portrayed the commuters as simply rebelling against the new rules despite it being logical to stand order to ease congestion, with the London Metro claiming “It might be backed up by theories of crowd control [sic], but many people have decided to ignore the diktat from their TfL masters”.

We searched Twitter to look at how commuters themselves talked about the escalator policy change, as this provides us with spontaneous commentary from (at least some) people. We hoped that we could find patterns of logic in the ways that commuters described and justified their non-adherence to the new rules. Indeed, we found dozens of commuters’ tweets about the change in the escalators, in around 10 of which people drew upon London and UK identities to justify their opposition. For example:

‘Did I comply with the new #standingonly trial at Holborn tube escalators? Of course not. #TheLondonWay #LondonStyle #DoAsTheLondoners’

‘Standing-only Tube escalators go against everything Londoners hold dear’

‘Asking people to stand on the left goes against everything British. Plus we can’t shout at tourists anymore.’ 

The tweets above suggest that people did not irrationally oppose the new laws, but actually justified their objection for other reasons. More specifically, the objections were based on values related to their social identities. Rather than there being an inherent, individualistic tendency in some commuters to rebel against TfL, we argue that there may be other factors influencing some commuters’ reaction to this experiment. One possible explanation for the resistance has to do with the social identities and relevant social norms associated with being a London commuter. Some commuters invoked the British national identity and more specific norms and values associated with it, attempting to undermine and delegitimise the new regulations. While the commuters’ objection appeared not simply as a personal position but instead as supporting and defending their British identity, it undermined and positioned the stand-only policy as being essentially ‘anti-British’. As can be seen from the extracts, compliance with the new rules is presented as being in conflict with British culture (“goes against everything British”, “go against everything Londoners hold dear”, “#TheLondonWay”) or as preventing habits directly linked with the British identity (“we can’t shout at tourists anymore”).

In social psychological theory, the social identity tradition has focused on the identities that people hold in relation to the groups they belong – one can identify as a Manchester United fan, as a Muslim, and as a Greek. Which identity is salient will depend on the surrounding context and the people present; for example, a national identity will be more salient during national celebrations, whereas a football fan identity will be more salient when attending a football match. The norms and ways of behaving associated with each identity can act as guides for our subsequent behaviours; in this way, when people are treated as members of our group, we are more likely to offer support and better coordinate with them.

By contrast, treating someone as an out-group member, as not sharing common interests, or against our own ingroup values might lead to non-supportive behaviours and non-compliance. Taking those facts into account and applying them in the case of the TfL escalator policy changes and the subsequent reactions, it would appear that the new policy has been seen as violating the commuters’ culture, habits and values, which might be intrinsically linked with their social identities.

Our quick search on Twitter shows that some people are using ‘London’ and ‘UK’ social identities to justify their opposition. Although this could be simply strategic, it does indicate that TfL might need to investigate the role of social identities on behaviour further. If shared social identities increase compliance, communication, and coordination between people, then the stand-only escalator policy could be better received if it was seen as stemming from an organisation that shares a common identity with the commuters, rather than as being enforced from the top.

We propose that TfL should reconsider the methods it uses to communicate and affect the behaviour of the commuters. One way TfL plan for crowd behaviour is through the use of crowd models to plan how many people can safely enter, leave, and walk through the stations, and where problem areas may occur due to narrow corridors or escalators. TfL predicted that the stand-only escalators would ease congestion by 30%. However, instead the commuters largely ignored the new system and justified their actions by drawing upon their social identities. This indicates that in order to model this accurately, TfL need to be aware of the way that the social identities of commuters can impact their behaviour. The consequences of not doing this can be seen in the tweets of the commuters themselves.

While this trial run only caused slight hassle in Holborn station, we suggest that it points to the importance of drawing upon social psychology to understand crowd behaviour if TfL intend to roll out larger changes which could have stronger consequences for crowd safety.

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