Page 3 model: Crowd control

Modelling a Saturday afternoon on Oxford Street


Being part of a crowd is something that we all have to experience from time to time. Whether it’s in a busy shop or commuting to work, the feeling of being swept along by those around us is all too familiar. The ubiquity of the situation, and the huge amount of data available from CCTV footage, makes crowd dynamics a favourite subject for mathematical modelling.

One popular method is known as the social force model, which applies Newton’s second law to each member of the crowd. Each individual accelerates to maintain their ‘desired velocity’, and this is balanced against forces from physical obstacles as well as the social force that maintains polite distance between people—a mathematical interpretation of personal space!

Lanes naturally form when people walk in opposite directions. Image: Dirk Helbing and Peter Molnar

Huge simulations of up to a million pedestrians have been run, which show the model’s remarkable powers. If groups of people want to travel in opposite directions along a bridge, for example, lanes of alternating direction naturally form to minimise “bumping”.

When two crowds meet at a gap, the walking direction oscillates. Image: Dirk Helbing and Peter Molnar

Some of the results are more unexpected. For example, if people try and move too fast then it can actually slow them down via an increase in ‘friction’ that results from pushing. Further, it can be shown that two narrow doors are a more effective way of leaving a room than one big door, so putting a bollard in the middle of an exit actually speeds people up!

Still, not much solace when you’re stuck in a Christmas scramble at Woolworths…


Helbing D and Molnar P (1997). Self-organization phenomena in pedestrian crowds. In: Schweitzer F (ed.) From individual to collective dynamics, 569–577.

Sean is a PhD student researching geophysical fluid dynamics at UCL. He studies coastline flows, but so far has been unable to persuade the department to send him on a research trip to the beach.

Twitter  @sean_jamshidi    + More articles by Sean

You might also like…