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Science News: Rules for navigating through large crowds

– K.J., Editor

Transport hubs, large shopping centers, and holiday events all have one thing in common: large crowds. Moving in an overcrowded, loud space can be anxiety-inducing and feel strange, especially if you have to move against the flow of foot traffic.

One tip is to learn how to follow the flow of the pedestrian lanes that naturally form. Mathematicians at the University of Bath, UK, led by Professor Tim Rogers collaborated with Professor Bogdan Bacik from the Academy of Physical Education, Poland, to test their theory about how pedestrians naturally fall into lanes when moving through a crowd. They found that when two groups of pedestrians with different objectives cross paths with each other in a crowded space, they order themselves spontaneously to avoid collision. The cumulative effect of individuals making these unconscious decisions results in lane formation.

There are rules, both written and unwritten, that will guide you on how to safely navigate the pedestrian lanes that form in places such as sidewalks, building corridors, and escalators. Regarding escalators in particular, signs will direct pedestrians to stand on one side and leave the other side open for walkers. However, would standing on both sides be a better option? Transport for London’s customer strategy analyst Celia Harrison and her coworkers performed an experiment at Holborn Station in London on a busy weekday morning. They discovered that an escalator that usually carried 12,745 customers between 8:30 and 9:30 a.m. when passengers were asked to stand on the right saw an increase in passenger load to 16,220 when passengers were made to stand on both sides. Hong Kong and Japan have already begun to implement this rule change in train stations, and this practice is likely to spread.

While this change is not applicable to pedestrians in settings other than escalators, rules for crowd navigation may change as researchers learn more about how people move in crowds, and discuss ways to make pedestrian flow more efficient. Have you noticed any changes to foot traffic rules in your area?

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