Elevators Changed Cities. Will Coronavirus Change Elevators?
Of the many stressful spaces in a coronavirus-stricken city, elevators are among the most fraught. All but the fanciest require touching germy surfaces to operate and present the risk of other people squeezing in at any time. Even empty cars can harbor Covid-19 pathogens: A recent model of a hypothetical elevator ride showed that viral droplets can linger in the air well after an infected person exits.
Months into the coronavirus pandemic, building managers, health experts and high-rise dwellers have charted new codes of elevator etiquette and hygiene; as office workers trickle back to work, plans to get people up and down safely are being put in place. Yet the ubiquity and variety of vertical transportation systems means that new elevator norms and products aren’t possible for everyone to adopt. Invented for convenience and utterly mundane mere months ago, elevators now stand out as anxiety boxes that encapsulate all manner of social issues in cities.
“Elevators are the epicenter of urban density,” said Andreas Bernard, a professor of cultural studies at Germany’s Leuphana University and the author of Lifted: A Cultural History of Elevators.“They’ve always been the site where anonymity and intimacy come together in a unique way.”
First, a history. Without elevators, there would be no tall buildings. New York’s skyscraper boom followed swiftly after the first successful passenger lift ride in Manhattan in 1857, and other world cities would take its lead. With roughly 18 million elevators now running (or stalled) in cities around the world, the biggest structural height constraint in today’s supertalls is not the weight of steel but the weight of elevator cables, which is why some manufacturers are exploring horizontal elevators to eliminate rope strain.