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I have a theory that the Close Door buttons in most elevators don’t really do anything but are installed to pacify impatient passengers. I’ve never been in an elevator where the doors react to my pushing a Close Door button, and I have tested elevators I ride frequently to see if there was a difference in closing time. Any insight?

— billy, faxland

“Close Door buttons don’t work? Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!” A direct quote from an Otis elevator tech rep. If the elevator’s car operation panel isn’t hooked up completely, that’s a code violation. When the manufacturer installs it, the button works, at least in Otis machines. There are two possible explanations for the apparent nonresponse as you wham away at the button. Do you ride short-rise, hydraulic elevators that only have to travel a few floors? These have pretty low-tech electronic operating panels; response time from “push” to “close” can be 15, 20 seconds. That’s not a case of the button not working, it’s just not working as fast as you think it should. And that’s the second possible explanation — the perception of time passing. To somebody who’s late for a meeting with the client, 15 seconds waiting for the door to close is enough time for his career to pass before his eyes. Repeatedly bludgeoning the Close Door button is his desperate, useless response.


In regards to the question about the Close Door button in elevators [being just a placebo for anxious riders], [you] quoted an Otis tech rep as saying, "Ha-ha-ha-ha." Well, I just read a book called Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything. It was kind of a history of time and our perceptions of it. The author discusses studies done by Otis regarding how people act -- where they've had hidden cameras watching people getting on and off elevators and seeing how many seconds is their irritation coefficient. And I got the impression from this book that in fact Close Door buttons do not work, and it's a closely guarded secret of the Otis Elevator Company. They put them there as a kind of pacifier. Maybe I got the wrong impression from the book, but I'm pretty sure [you] didn't get the straight skinny from Otis, and quite frankly I'm a little disappointed.

-- Anonymous, telephonically

In fact, Faster is on the M.A. bookshelf, and we asked Otis about author James Gleick's suggestion that there are dummy Close Door buttons. Their reply (other than "Ha-ha-ha") was that there may be some bad buttons, but they weren't that way when the company shipped and installed the device. The purchaser can specify a "dwell time" (the time it takes for an elevator door to respond to hammering on the button), and that can vary from building to building, depending on traffic patterns and elevator-system configurations. The button doesn't say "Close Door Immediately!" It simply suggests that if you push the button, sooner or later the door will close in response. Not fast enough for most of us, and doubly bad since Close Door's companion, Open Door, responds right away -- a safety issue, apparently. Because of long dwell times, the Close Door button may seem useless, but it does work.

Another possibility is that the Close Door-button system in any given elevator is broken. Since the doors eventually will close in response to people pushing buttons to select their floors, this isn't an emergency, and it may remain undiagnosed for a long time. But it's just an inefficiency, not a corporate plot. Would a world full of disconnected Close Door buttons somehow boost Otis's profile on Wall Street? If not, the company would have no reason to intentionally irritate riders, unless you are a subscriber to the Corporate Sadists theory of decision-making.

Gleick won a Pulitzer for his science-writing, so we can't exactly call him a rumormonger and crackpot. In his intro to Faster, he does refer to "the close door button in elevators, so often a placebo, with no function other than to distract for a moment those riders to whom ten seconds seems like an eternity." But in the intro, he does not elaborate or further define "often."

In the chapter titled "The Close Door Button," the Otis studies he mentions have to do with human behavior and time perception while waiting for an elevator to arrive, not a revelation that Close Door buttons in all elevators never work. He cites an Otis executive who says sometimes building management will disable the button to avoid lawsuits from people who might get clothing or extremities caught in the doors. But again, this assertion isn't supported with numbers, and there's no suggestion that it is a widespread practice. According to my chat with Otis, it's not common enough to give all elevator riders the idea that the buttons never work. That's just our perception of time in a speeded-up world, Gleick's thesis in the first place. And as we all know, the Close Door button works too fast when we're the ones running down the hall to catch a ride.

Lowdown from Down Under

Centuries ago we grappled with the question of whether the Close Door button on an elevator actually works. Here's the official line from Australia, but since everything there is upside down, I'm not sure it applies in the Northern Hemisphere.

Otis elevator Door Close button. Finally the truth comes out. Yes, the door close button is connected. Yes, it does not do anything when pressed. It was designed to operate when the elevator is switched to "independent service." In this mode the elevator doors stay open until the Door Close button is pushed. Often used when [movers] are shifting furniture or when moving VIPs around, as when in this mode the outside calls do not cause the elevator to stop. Fact, from ex-Otis elevator serviceman and installer.

-- Andrew Wood, Australia

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