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Mobility – swarms of people

 Surprise (Switzerland) 13 May 2019

(Originally published: 05/2010) In the animal kingdom the flock is an extremely efficient mobility model. But when it comes to people, everyone goes their own way. Or so you might think. According to recent studies masses of people function quite similarly to flocks of animals. (478 words) - Reto Aschwanden

Be like the birds: in the animal kingdom the flock is an extremely efficient mobility model. But when it comes to people however, everyone goes their own way. Or so you might think. According to recent studies masses of people function quite similarly to flocks of animals. If we realise that the collective is more intelligent than the individual, traffic jams could soon become a thing of the past.


Every morning it's the same old story. You've barely stepped off of the train, commuters pushing and shoving each other to get on the escalator, where the traffic jam is already waiting. Upstairs the next crowd arrives: some run to the platforms, others to the exit and then there are the people bouncing off one another, who crowd around the kiosk no matter what. Happy is he who goes without receiving a dirty look or missing his destination

The person in the crowd thinks he is mostly on the right track. Chaos always causes others to react with erratic behaviour. But even if we supposedly live in an individualistic age, in a crowd we move as part of a collective.

At least that's what Anders Fredrik Johansson from the ETH in Zurich thinks. "The masses organise themselves. Most people look for coordination and cooperation, in other words, that they line themselves up and go with the flow." The sociologist and his team are investigating how compact crowds of people function, which patterns follow the movement and how people get out of each other's way. One factor forms the individual requirement for freedom. How high this is, depends on the situation. At an open-air concert physical closeness is disturbed far less than walking through a museum. In addition, Johansson stresses cultural differences in dealing with proximity and distance: "Europeans need more space than, say, Japanese and Indians, who feel comfortable in cramped conditions." The resulting higher density leads to the smaller body size combined with the fact that Asian crowds move forward faster than European ones. People like us get in the way: "In Europe people quicken their pace to avoid getting too close to others. This leads to an overall slowing of the masses," according to ETH scientists.


Look at the neighbours

According to Johansson, culture also influences movement patterns: Europeans mostly sidestep to the right, members of Asian cultures to the left. "For now progress and flow don't matter, it's only important that most people react in the same way. Johansson can't say how much this has to do with road traffic, where people in central Europe drive on the right. For perhaps the inclination to the right or left of older and that lead to the appropriate road layout. One way or subconsciously, the decision falls on the alternate direction. "The decision on who takes over again in such situations over the years becomes accustomed to certain patterns of behaviour. This is a learning process, similar to a child. "

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