Managing the Olympic crowds
19 July 2012
Understanding how crowds behave is crucial for safety and security at big events. With the London 2012 Olympic Games only days away, the recently launched Crowd Behaviour Network - part of the ESRC-funded research project Improving Crowd Event Preparation and Management: Combining Academic and Practitioner Perspectives to Enhance Knowledge and Practice - could provide timely insights.
"Crowd management is particularly important for enhancing safety at large events," says network founder Rose Challenger, who is an organisational psychologist at Leeds University Business School.
"The Olympics pose additional challenges because they are spread over multiple days and across multiple locations, so it is vital to provide effective crowd management and 'multi-agency co-ordination' - co-ordinating how decisions made on one day or in one location will have knock-on effects on subsequent days and across other locations."
A multi-faceted audience
Crowd management is different from crowd control as it aims to anticipate and prevent issues before they escalate.
The complex task of managing crowds is not limited to the sports arenas. The organisers also have to plan for people following the parallel events, such as watching on big screens or attending concerts.
"The profile of the crowd will also be different at the Olympics in comparison to a 'normal' event," Challenger points out. "There will be hardcore sports fans, athlete fans, families or groups wanting a day out, people who just want to be part of the event but don’t have tickets, people unfamiliar with London, people who don’t have English as a first language, and so on."
Managing transport flow
"Transport networks will also play a central role in the successful running of the Games, and with the vast number of people expected will need careful management to avoid overload," she adds.
The Get Ahead of the Games campaign is one of the measures to minimise travel crowds, encouraging passengers to travel at alternative times or to find alternative routes.
Cultural differences in crowd behaviour
The Crowd Behaviour Network currently includes about 170 members, including researchers and professionals from the UK, Europe, Hong Kong, Australia, Canada and the US.
The international approach to the research might also shed some light on whether cultural differences play a part in crowd behaviour.
"For example, there are differences in 'keep left, keep right' behaviours - for instance when standing on escalators or walking along passages. In the UK, we stand on the right and walk on the left, whereas in Japan they stand on the left and walk on the right," Challenger points out.
"In France, people tend to move to the right when approaching someone walking the other way, whereas in Asia people tend to move to the left. And crowds in Japan or Hong Kong will tolerate more crowded conditions and rougher treatment than crowds in Europe, as they are more familiar with being overcrowded on trains and platforms."
More awareness of crowd management
There is generally an increasing awareness of the importance of effective crowd management, she argues.
"Professionals involved with crowd management and with event preparation and management are increasingly finding their actions under scrutiny and in the media spotlight. They are increasingly having to account for decisions made and actions taken, so need a thorough grounding in crowd management to fall back on."
With thousands about to descend on the Olympic venues, the art of crowd management will be put to the test. Let the Games begin.