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)


Michael

I think people are missing two points:

First and foremost, everyone going down is already forced to take the stairs (escalators only go up in most of the subway stations in Stockholm, with a few exceptions, and there are elevators in all of them for the handicapped and stroller-pushers ),

Second, the stairway in question is only 24 steps. I doubt that this extra effort would amount to even a single calorie being burned.

michelle

one person's lost calorie is another person's pain. some people are very sensitive to noise, and I think that for people who don't like hearing discordant piano sounds, that's just a station to be avoided.

Tim

If this is about reducing demand for health-care (and therefore costs) in their country then I think they're shooting themselves in the foot

I don't believe that this is going to stop a single person from becoming obese, but it will almost certainly lead to at least a few injuries from people jumping up and down in the stairs (as demonstrated in the video).

If they were really serious about this they would have just turned off the escalator, as Kent mentioned.

Tim

What about just making an escalator painfully slow? If there's a big hold up at the escalator, people will take the stairs to save time. This way, the escalator is still available to those that need it, but increases the use of the stairs substantially. Plus, the cost to implement this should be minimal.

Laserlight

Science Museum of Virginia has a stairway with a camera and a display screen. When it detects someone passing by specific 1sqft areas (which are shown on the screen), it plays a note for each area. Usually it has 4 - 10 notes across a couple of steps, so if several people walk down the stairs together (or 1-2 people with their arms out) it will play a musical phrase. The phrase changes every few minutes.

Paul

Edel,

The only thing about deterrents like that, is that they either have to be enacted city wide or there has to be no other alternative to the route.

If I am a lazy person and there are 2 malls in the city one has these annoying escalators and one doesn't, I will choose the least annoying mall. And if malls realize this, they wouldn't be built in the first place.

edel

Good point Paul!

If there was not public support for the scheme, i guess only governmental held buildings like the metro would work.
Of course, now you could argue that even for a handful of people that small "barrier" is enough deterrent to take the metro and travel in car already... you won´t believe how irrational choices we can take with these negative incentives!

Kevin

I agree that it's cute... until the novelty wears off.

I second the idea of slowing escalators down. That discourages casual use, while keeping them available for those who need them. This stair-use encouragement would cost almost nothing, and probably would even reduce energy costs -- a double bonus!

But, perhaps slow escalators are unfair to the mobility-impaired.

Jake

Lawsuits in Sweden? Not such a big deal.

Kevin C

Tim,
I like the way you think. Slowing down the escalators seems brilliant to me.

Holme

I wonder how long it will be before one guy or a small group will place a hat on each side of the stairs and start playing music.

Neusa Thome

Since the eighties, there is a fun piano stairway in the Boston Sciences Museum.

Mr. B

Wow. If there is one thing this experiment proved it's how grumpy, nitty picky and whinging people are in the face of creativity & innovation.

Jessica

I would drop the "what happens when they sue" question from the article, it is completely out of place in regards to Stockholm.

Not only are Swedes unlikely to be litigious generally, but the legal system makes civil cases a pain for everyone involved, and the level of damages for a succesful litigation rarely covers even the cost of representation, which in a civil case is not covered by legal aid and since the system does not allow legal professionals to work "pro bono", a civil case with the aim of claiming damages is always an unlikely route for anyone in Sweden. Only actual loss of income can be reimbursed - pain and suffering etc awards peanuts. It is like asking "What about all the flying pigs?"

As for all the killjoys in the thread: Yeah, this publicity initiative for a company is clearly a government scheme against obesity that will soon be implemented wherever there are escalators. In no way, shape or form will it remain for the duration of this capaign and then be taken out of commision - possibly leaving the painted stairs behind. I am so glad that so many people feel the need to speak up for sufferers of perfect pitch and are willing to sacrifice the needs of people with physical disabilities, the elderly and prams to save the sound sensitive 30 secs of discomfort in the obvious, and not at all forced and false, dichotomy between obesity and the disabled. Good thinking, you!

Seriously? A bit of fun in the morning rush for a few weeks? Omg noes !!1!one! Won't someone PLEASE think about the perfectly pitched!

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piano sheets

the next step is to plant sound into these stairs.... and maybe some piano sheets on the walls....

James

How much did this brilliant idea cost? How often does it have to be serviced and by what kind of technician? What happens when someone injures themselves playing around? And if they're so concerned about obesity, why do they have an escalator to go like 25 feet? They should have saved themselves the construction and maintenance costs and never built the escalator or the piano keys. The fact that so many people on this "economics" blog think this is such a great idea explains a lot about why our country is bankrupt (and obese).

Shine

Thankfully, Sweden works quite differently than the US, and if someone there hurts himself while acting stupid, he will think it is his fault... And were he to think of suing, the lawsuit would be dismissed.

Odenplan

I don't think your remark about lawsuits is an issue in Sweden where people rarely sue. This isn't the US. Fun story anyway.

lbsheynin, Moscow

It is better to pay one penny to each person upstairs, providing that the marginal economy, received by the volkless escalator, is more than penny.

andrea

I know the inventor of musical stairs and the original walking piano. His name is Remo Saraceni and is an absolute genius.
He designed these magical items more than twenty years ago and Tom Hanks was the first to dance on walking piano in the movie Big.
If you want to see with your eyes all the possible applications of the walking piano played with the feet take a look at Remo Saraceni's channel on youtube.