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Does Bloomberg's stair advocacy make business sense?

In his persistent campaign to make New Yorkers healthier, Mayor Bloomberg wants people to take the stairs instead of the elevator.

First it was smoking, then soda. Now New York City health-conscious mayor, Michael Bloomberg, wants to fight obesity by going after elevators. He's nudging architects to design buildings that encourage New Yorkers to take the stairs.

But does this concept, called "active design," make business sense?

To David Burney, it does. As commissioner of the city's Department of Design and Construction, he walks up to his fourth-floor office and wants to see more people in the stairwell.

"We design our built environment, making it easier to take the elevator, easy to take the escalator, becoming more and more sedentary," he says, "and there are things we can do to reverse that."

Many such ideas are collected in the city's "active design" guidelines and by its newly created Center for Active Design. Recommendations range from more bike lanes and wider sidewalks to access to grocery stores. But lately, the focus has been on stairs. Bloomberg wants to require new buildings to have a visible, continuous stairway and signs at the elevators that prompt people to climb instead of ride. The mayor also wants to change the building code to allow stairwell doors to stay open, making them airier and more inviting, provided they have a mechanism to close in case of a fire. 

Studies suggest that just having signs -- the current iteration of which say "burn calories, not electricity" -- can increase stair use by as much as a third. 

Some developers, like Les Blueston, are buying in. At Arbor House, an eight-floor affordable apartment building in the Bronx, he points out, "if you walk in the building, the first thing you notice is you don't see the elevator."

Instead, you see a glass door leading to an extra-wide stairwell. Next to it, a sign reads: "If your dog is fat, you're not getting enough exercise." Inside the stairwell there is black-and-white art and the sound of salsa music.

"As you can hear, we have music in the stairs," Bluestone says. "We've taken it out of the elevator and put it in the stairs." He also slowed down the elevators.

The building includes a gym with a rock-climbing wall, an outdoor patio with 12 exercise machines and a basement full of bicycle racks. It's too early to say whether the stairs and other design elements are having an effect, but Bluestone suspects it will result in healthier tenants. That could lead to fewer medical bills and thus an easier time paying the rent.

Perhaps even more important: The "active design" amenities added only one percent to his $37 million budget, making the adjustments a "no-brainer," he says.

How does the biggest elevator company feel about New York's push for walking?

"Fundamentally, we agree," says Daryl Marvin, director of innovation at the Otis Elevator. "It makes a lot of sense to take the stairs if you can. At the same time there's lot of times where that's not a practical solution."

For example: When your destination is above the fourth floor. 

Otis has been around for 160 years, putting elevators in the Empire State Building and Dubai's half-mile high Burj Khalifa. With dense cities and skyscrapers continuing to proliferate, Otis can be confident that climbing even the most enticingly designed stairs will be a tall order.

About the author

Stan Alcorn is a multimedia journalist in New York City. He has reported for NPR and WNYC, where he has focused on business and the New York tech scene.

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