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Why elevator close buttons don't work

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Even if your building has an up-to-date elevator that runs with all the speed and precision of a Swiss watch, 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 programed to work in most elevators. 

[Editor's note: This story was originally published in 2014.]

"About 80 percent of them don't work," explains Patrick Carr, a lifelong elevator technician who ran the Elevator Historical Society, a now-closed 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 programed to learn and work off of a building's traffic patterns—or instance, a rush of activity around 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.—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 Radiolab episode here.

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