Who Will Climb the Piano Stairs?

It feels as if the whole world is suddenly enthralled with the potential of nudge-y incentives: using “choice architecture,” as the nudge-masters Thaler and Sunstein put it, to encourage behavior that is good for both individuals and societies. A great many of these initiatives will fail, for behavior is harder to change than most smart people assume. But there already have been, and will continue to be, successes as well.

Here’s the latest example: in Stockholm’s Odenplan subway station, the staircase has been retrofitted to resemble giant piano keys, which produce real sound, to encourage commuters to climb the stairs rather than ride the escalator. According to this video — which seems to be part of a Volkswagen marketing initiative, though it’s unclear — it’s been a raging success.

Stockholm has seen rising obesity rates, especially among young girls, and has tried some other anti-obesity nudges as well. How will the musical stairs perform?

It’s a clever idea, to be sure, but the skeptic in me wonders:

  • Once the cameras have gone away and the novelty wears off, will people still climb the stairs — especially since it’s probably more musically fun (and a lot easier) to descend than to ascend?
  • Just as people who already count calories may be the only people who pay attention to calorie counts, will only fit people take the piano stairs?
  • What happens after the first lawsuit, when some commuter takes a nasty tumble while playing “Chopsticks” or trying to land a resounding fifth?

(Hat tip: Gabe Audick)


If a lot of people use the stairs won't it just sound like someone banging on a piano? That hardly seems encouraging.


At least they are on the right track. I like the idea. Even though I feel the sound is not as pleasing as it could be. Maybe change the notes around, so you actually play a song when ascdending/descending the stairs.


A few additional points:

1) Isn't the decision as much about time as anything else? If the stairs are moderately full after a train arrives, I'm going to take the escalator, or vice versa. It is for me in the ATL airport, which I'm in almost weekly.

2) Aren't people taking the subway already using more calories than people riding in a car (assuming that the distance from/to subway station is much greater than distance from/ to the car).

3) This is just publicity for the artists.

ray bans on my face

I think those piano stairs are an awesome idea. I can picture some guy slowing up a lot of people just because he wanted to play salt-peanuts though. Nevertheless, I think ideas like that are a step in the right direction to reduce obesity.


If they had it play songs as you walked, and changed the songs a few times a week, I'd take it every day just to see what song it would be. Of course, I already take the stairs anyway. But with these stairs, I'd go out of my way to go up/down them.

Kent Fischer

Or ... they could've just turned OFF the escalator? That would have bumped up the stair climbing to 100%.


I think that this could get annoying very quickly, particularly for daily commuters and nearby residents and businesses. After the novelty wears off I can see it actually being a deterrent. Interactive lighting would probably work just as well in motivating people to take the stairs and would probably be less annoying. They might actually have crime deterrent capabilities too (would you still snatch a purse if you and the victim were lit up?).


Way to go Volkswagen - Oh, hang on, Nintendo have known this one for years.


I don't know how much it'll do for obesity but smiles are good for your health too. Me, I'd probably hurt myself trying to leap an arpeggio.


A quick note about the third skeptic-point: remember that these stairs are in Sweden, not in the U.S. Most other countries (Sweden certainly included) are nowhere near as litigious as the U.S. is and people generally don't sue for falling down stairs.


Would adding light-up Billy Jean tiles on the sidewalk get more people to walk than drive?

Science Minded

Not this SOUNDS like a great idea. And I agree that a song is in order. as one goes up- otherwise- would be unpleasant. to hold accountable to notes. perhaps- as one passes the proper note of the song of the day- the key sounds. Otherwise it doesn't. Just think of how many people will automatically learn how to play the piano. As a piano player myself- I think that it would work. Am curious though about the sounds now- it just goes up or down the scale beginning with C or an octave.


Kind of ironic coming from a car company, I'd say.


Turning off the escalator would be rather cruel to pregnant women, parents with small children (especially in strollers) and other folks whose mobility is enough to make public transport possible but stairs difficult.


Consider how painful this set of stairs will be for people who are sensitive to pitch or who have perfect pitch and people who don't like phrases of music cut off in mid-phrase. I can see people needing earplugs in this station or going out of their way to avoid it.

The idea is nice if a few people with musical training are going through the station. I think it would be cacophonous during rush hour, and who needs more tension from unpleasant noise during a stressful commute?

Will someone be keeping this stairway in tune whenever it gets out-of-tune?

Cute idea, but the stairway should not have been built in a busy mass transit location.


The new airport in indianapolis has an over head walkway to the garage. There are moving sidewalks along the edges. The middle is just your usual wide walkway. But on the ceiling are lights that turn color over where you are as your walk. They "follow you". Also, the walking areas make a laser type noise in the direction you are going.
I never use the moving sidewalk anymore. As a matter of fact, I walk side to side (a longer distance of walking) just to watch the lights and lasers.
This type of thing works. I know it.


How about people like me who always take the stairs but would consider this annoying and intrusive?

One of the reasons I take the stairs is because it's quieter and less crowded.

66% more people take the stairs (until the novelty wears off, anyway). Does it matter if you piss off a few long-term users who were there for the right reasons in the first place?


There isn't a single cure for the obesity solution. It would be silly to put musical stairs in every subway station around the world and expect it to make a dent in the obesity problem. On the other hand, a few clever and fun incentives to exercise more and car less will undoubtedly get people to be more active.
After living in Europe for three years I visited my hometown in upstate New York a few months ago. It was a beautiful summer day but there wasn't a single bicyclist or pedestrian (my partner and I were the exceptions) to be seen. It was freaky -- like a sci-fi movie. But how could I blame the residents? There are no bike lanes on the streets. There is a river and a lake in the city but there are no paths around them. Making a small town more pedestrian and bike friendly won't end obesity but such efforts will help people begin to create more active lifestyles. And, please, don't tell me they're too expensive. Take the money from the transportation, healthcare, entertainment and rich banker bailout budgets.


Jose Ward

Happy People Live Longer too


Nice experiment, but irrelevant to effective discourage usage of the escalator..

The novelty factor is what makes it work in the video, but the initial novelty factor will wear out in time really fast in those stairs, let alone if installed in more across the city. For me, that i don't want to bother anyone, it will even discourage me from using the stairs...

I see however three realistic alternatives:

1) That a soft background music is played when stairs used.

2) If some method that could give an individual feedback (like Jameson said with Nintendo) things could be good too.

3) Create a small barrier against the casual usage of the escalator (for instance a changeable combination of four buttons to make it run)

The method 3 i see as the most viable. It will allow the usage of escalator for those incapable of climbing the stairs but discourage those more agile ones from using it. With the added bonus that if someone has activated the escalator already, one can take advantage of the "free" ride.