Buttonless elevators have their ups and downs
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Whenever Richy Glassberg gets into an elevator to go to his midtown Manhattan office, he reflexively reaches to press the button for his floor. But there are no buttons.
The buttons are in the lobby, at the base of the elevator bank. Elevator riders enter their floor number on a keypad and are directed by the display to a particular car that will stop at their floor.
You can't change your mind about where you're going after the doors shut. "Once you get on, you've got claustrophobia," says Mr. Glassberg, who is a senior vice president at Gemstar-TV Guide International Inc.'s TV Guide. He calls the new elevators "Wonkavators," after the flying glass elevator in the movie "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory."
These new buttonless lifts -- known as "destination elevators" -- are springing up in new buildings all over the world, promising to speed rides and reduce waiting time. The Swiss company Schindler Group has installed nearly 3,000 destination elevators, including about 600 in the U.S. In midtown Manhattan, they can be found at the Marriott Marquis hotel in Times Square, the News Corp. headquarters on Sixth Avenue where TV Guide is located, 30 Rockefeller Center, and in the new Hearst Corp. headquarters on 57th Street.
Many elevator riders are finding it hard to adjust to the new technology. Just as riders in the 1950s complained at first about the disappearance of human elevator operators, some riders today are uncomfortable ceding control of their ride to a computer. First-timers are the most confused, often hopping into an open elevator and then realizing as the doors shut in front of them that there are no buttons to press.
In a New Yorker interview, News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch complained about them. "Somebody put these new elevators in, and nobody knows how to use them," Mr. Murdoch said.
Tom Tullis, a professor who studies the "usability" of technology at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass., was so appalled by his encounter with a destination elevator in Boston that he gave a presentation to a usability conference that he titled, "You shouldn't have to read a user manual to ride an elevator!"
But the modern world's relentless desire for speed is trumping the objections. Schindler Group says its elevators can reduce the time of the average journey by about 30 percent. Grouping riders by floor limits the number of stops each elevator needs to make and thus makes more elevators available at any given moment.
The modern passenger elevator was born in 1853, when Elisha Otis demonstrated a safety mechanism that would prevent an elevator from falling even if its hoisting ropes were cut with an ax. His company, Otis Elevator, got its first order for a passenger elevator in 1857 and ushered in an era of taller buildings.
In 1924, Otis installed the first automatic elevator requiring no attendants in a residential apartment building. But it took 30 more years before Otis introduced automatic elevators in skyscrapers. Riders eventually got used to pushing their own buttons.
In the 1970s, elevators, which had been controlled manually from the lobby, joined the computer revolution. And, in 1990, Joris Schroder, an engineer at Schindler, came up with the idea of giving microprocessors a new task: optimizing elevator traffic. He described his innovation in a March 1990 article in the trade publication "Elevator World," as a "passenger-second minimizing cost-of-service algorithm."
Schindler, the world's second-largest elevator manufacturer after Otis, installed the first destination elevator using Dr. Schroder's algorithm at the Hamburg Electric Co. in Germany in 1990.
Three years later, the first U.S. installation occurred at the Ameritech building in Indianapolis. When the new elevators arrived, the building hired mimes to show tenants how to use them.
Still, fear of rider backlash delayed the rollout of destination elevators. At first, Schindler focused its marketing on single-tenant buildings with more than 15 floors. "We were apprehensive about it," says Sula Moudakis, director of high-rise installations at Schindler.
But during the building boom of the late '90s, destination elevators began to catch on. Schindler has installed, or is in the process of installing, more than 230 destination elevators in New York City. Otis, a unit of United Technologies Corp., says it has sold more than 20 destination elevators world-wide, including one in the new 7 World Trade Center.
Rolling out a new destination elevator often requires educating riders about how to use it. Schindler says clients often hand out brochures and hold training sessions in their lobbies.
Most people catch on pretty quickly. Just a month after the Hearst Tower opened, some Hearst executives said they were forgetting to push buttons in old-fashioned elevators. "My problem has become that I keep forgetting to press buttons in the elevator in my apartment building, so as I tap tap tap on my BlackBerry, I realize minutes later that the elevator hasn't moved," says Atoosa Rubenstein, the departing editor in chief of Hearst's Seventeen magazine.
Perhaps the most complicated Schindler installation was at the crowded Marriott Marquis hotel in Times Square, where the elevator system had been seriously overtaxed. The hotel has 2,000 guest rooms, a 1,600-seat theater, ballrooms with 3,800 seats and restaurants serving as many as 2,000 people a day.
The foot traffic is worst at rush hour, and the 16 passenger elevators in the hotel's central atrium each made 2,000 trips a day. The average wait time for an elevator was 60 to 90 seconds, but the longest waits could be up to 30 minutes. The hotel had one of the highest levels of complaints in the Marriott system, and 75 percent of them were about the elevators, says Mike Stengel, the hotel's general manager. "We didn't even wear our name tags in the elevator for fear that we'd get clobbered by a customer," he says.
Over the past six years, Marriott replaced all 16 guest elevators with destination elevators. Now that the $11 million installation is complete, the hotel says that guests have to wait on average 20 to 25 seconds for an elevator.
To explain the new elevators to passengers, the hotel employs two greeters on the street level and two more in the lobby who tell passengers how to use the elevators.
But human beings are difficult to train. During a recent rush hour at the Marriott, some guests tried to override the system by punching in their floor numbers multiple times in the hopes of getting faster service. Instead, the system slowed down.
"There were two of us in an elevator and it stopped about five times," said Matthew Cox, a guest from London.
First Published November 14, 2006 12:00 am