I don’t know how many times I’ve passed through this section of Narita airport. Only yesterday did it strike me how stupid this moving walkway was. It is all of 18 paces long. Hardly worth breaking your stride to step onto, only to have it give you a minimal speed boost just in time for you to step off again. Moving walks can be a convenient way of helping people move through an airport if they have baggage, children or other mobility issues. There is a perfectly fine set of moving walk belts connecting the two sides of the south wing of Narita airport, parallel to passport control. But this mini-conveyor just struck me as stupid. So I stopped and took some pictures.
The dark figure in the background to the left is the nice policeman who was alerted to the presence of a suspicious foreigner taking photos of important airport infrastructure. I explained that this walkway seemed to be a rather wasteful use of space, energy and airport funds. I didn’t mention my dangerous plan to blog it to the world.
Not ten paces away from the end of said stupid walkway was another technological marvel: a tunneled stupid walkway. Perhaps they had some leftover walkway after chopping the other one down to 18 paces, and decided to throw in some leftover tunnel as well. There may be a reasonable explanation for this but most likely it is just politicians making sure Japanese conglomerates have use for their automation product. Using taxes to stimulate demand for manufacturing can be okay. But they don’t have to be stupid about it.
One way stupid automation happens is when people start rather than end with automation as a step in an improvement process. To avoid this we should first question the need for the process and eliminate everything from it that we can. Don’t automate waste, in other words. In this case the walking distance is the process and the waste. For buildings and airports this needs to happen at the design stage. Let’s proceed with the assumption that the process (walking) is as efficient as it can be before automation.
Second, we should aim to minimize the investment and operating cost of the automation required to simplify the process. At first glance it seems that this smaller moving walkway followed this rule. However, when we examine the walkway itself it is the identical product as the longer one, only smaller. It is possible that the design is highly modular and can be built incrementally to any size, accordion-like. But in most cases these things are designed for maximum capacity, load and duration of use and as the size is shrunk the fixed costs of the moving and static parts tends to cost more based on a “design for maximum” principle.
Third, we must avoid creating monuments. This moving walkway is a monument. The tunnel is a perfect example. Once they install one of these, they are hard to move. There is no flexibility. Without getting into a discussion on the design alternatives for moving people through an airport, let’s just recognize that anytime a piece of automation requires a pit, it is a monument.
On the bright side, if you pass through the tunnel to the other side there are some very nice design improvements that have been made to this section of Narita airport. The art on the walls, the tasteful modern furniture, the indirect lighting all make for a very pleasant airport experience. From one end of the tunnel, stupidity to elegance, it is a stunning contrast.