Why elevator "close" buttons don't work

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Even if your building's got an up-to-date elevator that runs with all the speed and precision of a Swiss watch (if that's the case, no need to brag), you've likely found yourself waiting the maddening extra few seconds for the doors to finally close, furtively pushing the "close" button and wondering why isn't anything happening. Turns out, there's a very real answer to this question, and it's not that city living has rendered all of us impatient monsters. It's that the "close" button is never actually programmed to work in most elevators. 

"About 80 percent of them don't work," explains Patrick Carr, a lifelong elevator technician who runs the Elevator Historical Society, an elevator museum in Long Island City. "It's because they were never wired up—most of the time we don't do it." But the reason has more to do with practicality than spite (for the most part, at least).  In an episode devoted to all things button-related, Radiolab paid a visit to Carr, who explained that most elevators are programmed to learn and work off of a building's traffic patterns—for instance, a rush of activity around 9am and 5pm—and therefore know when to return to the ground floor ASAP, when to idle, etc. Artificially forcing the doors to close can throw this off, and Carr says, "We like watching people just keep pressing a stupid button and not knowing." Ah.

Still, we're not all completely at the mercy of elevator technicians' whims. If you want to get the doors to close faster—say, if the elevator has stopped at a floor where no one's getting on—wave your arm through the door, and pull it back quickly. This will make sensors in standard elevators think that a person has entered, and then the doors will shut.

But word to the wise: waving your arm in the doors is a lot more obvious than surreptitiously jamming the "close" button while smiling and waving hello, so if you're hoping to avoid a ride with your least favorite neighbor, use this trick judiciously.

Listen to the full podcast here.


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