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Student Center Needs Express Elevators

Column by Anders Hove
Executive Editor

Last weekend I attended the annual Alumni/ae Leadership Conference. After sitting in on a spirited yet probably pointless small group discussion, I attended the cocktail hour where I ran into a couple of former members of the Student Center Committee. Keying off the discussion of MIT's bad decision-making processes, the alumni related several horror stories of botched planning and contracting involving the Student Center. It's obvious that many things are wrong with the Student Center, but they both agreed that a major no-brainer from the architectural standpoint should have been the elevator system.

Now here's an experience most MIT veterans have had all too often: You get on the elevator at the first floor, along with 12 other people. The elevator stops at the second floor, but there's no room for the two Aramark employees who couldn't handle the one flight of stairs up to the third floor where they had planned to eat. Fortunately, they had hit the elevator buttons on both sides, so the other lift will be stopping for them in no time. Unfortunately for you, the elevator door won't be closing for another few minutes, especially since someone's hand just grazed the door sensor. Lo and behold, you get a glimpse of the Aramark employees when your car stops on the third floor to pick up - surprise! - nobody. Total time to fifth floor this time around? Actual experimentation reveals a scenario travel time of four minutes, mostly time spent waiting for the doors to close.

Or take this humorous episode that just occurred downstairs: A Campus Police officer and I were standing by the elevator. I pressed the "up" arrow; he pressed "down." Now, granted, the officer was violating the express elevator concept of Student Center elevator norms, but I figured maybe he'd sprained his ankle tracking down hijacked bicycles. Just as the elevator door opened, 12 other people arrived and piled in, not suspecting that the elevator was going down, adding at least three minutes to their journey.

Now get this: The campus police officer, who originally pressed the "down" arrow, did not get in the elevator. Instead, he milled about for a little while, then sauntered out the door. What's the deal?

Earlier I mentioned the "express elevator concept." Those of us who spend almost all our lives in the Student Center have developed an informal set of norms to govern elevator behavior. First, we never take the up elevator fewer than three stories. So it's okay to go from the lobby to the fourth floor, or from Lobdell to the cluster. It's not okay to go from the lobby to the basement, or from the third floor to the Office of Residence and Campus Activities. This first norm allow us to minimally inconvenience each other in our daily comings and goings.

The second norm involves down elevator usage. It is only acceptable to take a down elevator from the fifth floor to the first floor. Anything else can be done faster on the stairs. The only exception is when there is an open elevator on your floor already. At that point, you might as well get in, since the damage to the express elevator norm has already been done.

The third norm involves the pressing of elevator buttons. Under no circumstances is it okay to press more than one elevator call button for the same trip. Poorly designed building that it is, the Student Center provides two unlinked sets of elevator call buttons per floor, thus enabling one person to hold up two elevators for one trip.

The beauty of express elevator norms is that they are easily enforced. If an individual stepping into an elevator has violated express elevator norms everyone else in the elevator knows it. They'll heap insults upon the perpetrator once he or she egresses, say, on the third floor. In other cases, I've heard audible groans and even abusive comments while the individual was actually still in the car. As police chief Wiggum always says, "That's nice work, boys."

The problem, of course, is that there is no way of indoctrinating newcomers to the express elevator notion. Freshmen and Aramark staff - the people who have the least information about how the MIT campus works - are the most flagrant violators of express elevator norms. Like any honor code, express elevator norms demand a certain amount of self-sacrifice if they are to work. And frankly, they don't.

Silliness aside, there is a much simpler solution to the Student Center elevator problem. First, the two sides' elevator buttons should be linked, just like in any other modern building. Second, one of the two elevators could be made an actual express elevator. An express elevator would service the first and fifth floors only - meeting the transportation needs of at least half the current elevator users. Non-express users could take the slow elevator, or just take the stairs down from the fifth if that suited their druthers.

The final option - bringing the speed of the elevators up to a reasonable speed - is probably beyond MIT's heavily downsized budget. That fact makes the linked button and express elevator options all the more attractive.

A Student Center express elevator is an idea whose time has come. Just think of how many currently disgruntled people would turn their lives around if they could get where they wanted to go in a reasonable amount of time. If express elevators had been installed years ago, RCA would never have fallen so far behind in its management of student accounts. With express elevators, students could get to classes on time, stress would be reduced, and alumni contributions would rise dramatically. In fact, it seems clear that MIT can not afford to do without an express elevator in the Student Center.