Take the stairs. Save a life.

Escalator closed to save electricity at Higashi Jujo Station in Tokyo, April 1, 2011

The title of this post may sound like hyberbole, but if you’ll bear with me you may see that it could be literally true for people living in eastern Japan.

As a result of damage from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, the region is suffering a serious electricity shortage. It will not be quickly or easily fixed. Consequently, Tokyo Electric Power Co. has instituted a system of rolling blackouts (see video here) to ration power.

Meanwhile, many other organizations have been doing what they can to save electricity. Train service has been reduced on some lines, and stores and other public places are operating with reduced lighting (see photo here) or have turned off some of their escalators (see photo above). Individuals have helped, too, such as by turning off unneeded lights at home.

These widespread efforts have reduced electricity demand so much that on many recent days TEPCO has called off its planned blackouts.

So far, then, we’re muddling through quite nicely.

But this summer, when millions of people turn on their air conditioners, demand is going to soar. Any blackouts to happen then will leave a lot of people baking.

To me, this sounded uncomfortable. To Charles Stross, it sounded deadly. He recently wrote on his blog:

Summer in Tokyo is savage…
Greater Tokyo also has 30-million-odd people, of whom a large proportion — maybe 20% — are 75 years or older.
Elderly folks do not handle heat waves well; they get dehydrated easily and if they don’t have air conditioning they die in droves. Normally it’s not a problem in Tokyo because 80% of households have air conditioning, but with rolling blackouts and insufficient power it’s another matter…
If TEPCO can’t get some of those 15 reactors back on stream by June, and if Tokyo experiences a heat wave this summer (as happens every few of years), then going by previous incidents (like the heat emergency in Paris in 2003 that killed 3000 people), the deaths from heat stroke, among the over-75s may rival the direct fatalities from the earthquake and tsunami combined.

With this dire but not unrealistic prediction in mind, we should all be looking for ways to save even more electricity. We probably can’t prevent every blackout or heat-related death, but we can at least minimize them.

As one realistically doable way to lower my own electricity consumption, I decided to stop using elevators.

Join me in the elevator game…

Since I live on the 8th floor of one building and work on the 5th floor of another, staying out of elevators should be doable for me. And if regular stair-climbing helps me shed some weight, making the eventual loss of air conditioning a little more bearable, then so much the better.

I was thinking along these lines for several days – and using elevators all the while – until 11:00 yesterday morning. Less than half an hour later, I gave myself some additional incentive by sending the following tweet:

Tokyo_Tom_Baker Tom Baker

To save electricity, I’m making a game out of seeing how long I can go without using an elevator. It’s been 27 minutes so far.

It wasn’t long before a few of my coworkers noticed what I was up to, which provided them some amusement. But as I added minutes and hours to my time count, even after going downstairs for lunch, I was feeling pretty good about myself.

And then, at 10:04 this morning, I smacked my palm against my forehead and loudly uttered a rude word because I suddenly realized that I was in an elevator.

Barely conscious of what I was doing, I had simply stepped aboard out of blind habit. I hadn’t even made it 24 hours. My outburst startled my fellow passengers, but they gracefully accepted my apology.

Oh, well. It wouldn’t be much of a game without the occasional setback.

At the time of this post, it has now been 7 hours and 30 minutes since I was last in an elevator. By summer, I think I should be pretty good at this. Follow me on Twitter to see how far I make it this time.

If you live in eastern Japan, I urge you to consider giving the elevators in your own buildings a rest. I happen to be playing the elevator game against myself, but you could save even more electricity – and perhaps some elderly people’s lives – by getting some friends together, putting some money on the table, and making a Seinfeldian contest of it.

Update (April 29, 2011)

My first round of the elevator game may have lasted less than 24 hours, but my second round was much more successful: I didn’t use elevators at all for a period of 13 days, 6 hours and 43 minutes. That was a pretty good run, if I do so myself.

What broke my streak? I bought a new bicycle. There is no good place to park a bike at ground level near by building, so I had to take it up to the eighth floor, where I live. I made a good faith effort by carrying my bike all way up the stairs – once – but that experience was enough to tell me that I was going to have to use the elevator if I had the bike with me. So, now I do sometimes use the elevator in the building where I live.

So the elevator game failed, right?

Actually not. It continues to be a tremendous success. I use the elevator at home much less than I used to, and I still haven’t used the elevator at work – where my office is on the 5th floor – even once in the four weeks since April 2. Considering that I used to take the elevator every day when I arrived in the morning, and then when I went out to lunch, and then when I came back from lunch, and then when I left in the evening, and also at other miscellaneous times during the day, I estimate that I have avoided at least 30 elevator trips every week – or about 120 so far.

So, though I no longer have the fun of watching my time total get longer and longer, I am consuming less electricity than I used to. And that’s the whole point.

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8 Responses to “Take the stairs. Save a life.”

  1. Loco Says:

    Thanks for posting this Tom! Incredibly informativeand poignant. The summer will soon be here and lives are definitely on the line.

  2. David Z. Morris Says:

    Great post. Sadly, escalators seem to be turning back on across Tokyo already.

  3. Shaun Says:

    Great idea, think I may join you at this.

  4. Amy Says:

    You, too, can be the master of your domain.

  5. Hanna Says:

    Um, I hate to burst your bubble, but since it’s hard and actually close to impossible to save electricity that isn’t used, saving electricity now isn’t going to do much for shortages in the summer. I mean, imagine the batteries that would be necessary to store that amount of electricity. Whatever electricity isn’t used simply isn’t used. But I guess it’s the thought that counts. . . and the fun and exercise of it maybe.

    • tokyotombaker Says:

      You are the second person to tell me that I can’t “save” electricity for the summer, but you are the first person to tell me so on this page. Thanks for giving me the chance to clarify.
      The word “save” has various meanings, including “use less of” and “set aside for future use.” In this context, I mean “use less of.” I do realize that a storage battery big enough to power a city has not yet been invented, and probably never will be. So the electricity that I am using less of now will not be available to draw on this summer.
      However, the energy-saving (or energy-efficient) habit I am developing now will continue to exist this summer. Developing good habits now will place less strain on the electricity supply that will exist then.

  6. David Says:

    This is great, they can save a lot of electricity by blocking the escalator, and reducing the power of the lights. And i think that everybody should do that at home by turning off all the electronics which they don’t need to be on.

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