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Steinberg: ‘The moving walkway is now ending’

The future we were promised never came.

No jet packs, no spandex jumpsuits, no robot maids — that little round vacuum thing just doesn’t count.

Sure, we got certain whiz-bang devices we didn’t expect: the phone/camera/computer in our back pockets. But that wasn’t really part of the classic Space Age Dream.

Moving sidewalks were. Why walk, why go to the bother of using your legs when you could be whisked to your destination through the magic of our friend, technology?

Now some of those futuristic wonders are going the way of Space Foods sticks, at least at O’Hare International Airport, where United Airlines announced it is taking out the eight moving walkways in Concourse C.

“Our observation shows that removing the walkways in Concourse C will enhance the experience for our customers by reducing congestion and improving flow through the concourse,” said Luke Punzenberger, a spokesman for United Airlines, based in Chicago.

They’ll also move faster.

OPINION


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“Moving walkways are the only form of transportation that actually slow people down,” said Dr. Seth Young, of Ohio State University, one of several scientists to study the sidewalks and find that they delay pedestrians by obstructing their paths or encouraging them to stand while traveling at a slower pace than they’d walk unaided. The walkways also take up room that could be used to increase airport shopping, a trend of the world we find ourselves in, as opposed to one we once dreamed about.

For those with a fondness for United’s trippy 850-foot walkway between Concourses B and C, with undulating glass walls, under what was billed as the longest neon sculpture in the world, worry not: that will remain.

“We’re only looking at Concourse C,” said Punzenberger. “There are no plans to remove the connector walkways.”

People who are elderly, or have physical limitations, might be concerned about the removal of the walkways, which do offer a respite from the lengthy slog between Point A and Point B.

“We recognize that some customers have special needs or concerns when flying, and we will continue to provide transport to customers who may require additional assistance,”  Punzenberger said.

Like the fascination with trips to the moon, moving sidewalks appeared in Victorian times then took off in earnest the 1950s. The first debuted at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.  Several other fairs around the world featured them, but it was only in 1954 that they first showed up as part of urban transportation hubs and, in 1958, jet age airports, when the first was installed at Love Field in Dallas.

People are always worry about our machines turning on us, and moving walkways really did. There was at least one death: On New Year’s Day, 1960, a toddler, 2-year-old Tina Marie Brandon, visited Love Field with her family to see relatives depart and was crushed to death when her coat sleeve was caught by the walkway. Before anyone could react, her clothing constricted her so much she suffocated.

Even when they don’t kill you, the walkways in C offered an unwelcome conundrum. What to do? Stride athletically through the non-moving part of the concourse, or meekly hop aboard, knowing you’ll have that slightly unsettling “The moving walkway is now ending, please look down” moment when you are projected back into the pedestrian realm of foot travel?

Better to get rid of them, and not just for the way they can make it harder to get to a particular shop, or the energy consumed, or the expense of maintaining them — or not maintaining them, as the case may be. In 1999, an electrical fire in one of the walkways shut down flights in Terminal One for two hours.

Four of the eight walkways are being removed now and will be gone by Thanksgiving, when there will be a pause in construction for the holiday traffic nightmare.

“We expect to complete work by spring,” Punzenberger said.

Good riddance. Moving walkways are like food pills: a better idea than a reality. Cool concepts, perhaps, but turns out people prefer walking and eating. Walking is a joy — OK, in airports, not so much. But it’s still good for you, and all things being equal, you should walk more, not less. Ditto for nutrition pills. People didn’t really want them; they want artisanal bread and organic apples and lettuce grown in the backyard.

The future never actually arrives, and considering the strange stuff we fooled ourselves into believing we wanted someday, that’s a good thing.


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While some moving walkways are being removed from O'Hare, these will remain. | Sun-Times file photo

While some moving walkways are being removed from O’Hare, these will remain. | Sun-Times file photo