Reopening the high street: how crowd planning has been turned on its head

May 27, 2020

How do we get people back to the high street safely? It is not as simple as widening pathways and spacing queues by 2m. More maths is needed than you think. Dr Aoife Hunt considers the challenge local councils now face to adhere to government plans once lockdown eases.

With news this weekend that high street shops and shopping centres are set to reopen on 15th June, local councils have just three weeks to get plans in place for managing their urban centres during this era of social distancing.

The challenges centre around issues of people movement, with planners being asked to consider how to manage pedestrian space, pedestrian movement, queues and traffic.  

These are the type of questions that event organisers and stadiums have been wrestling with for decades. Planning the movement of people in large systems is challenging and it takes dedicated analysis to make sure it works first time. For years, knowledge and experience in crowd planning has been widely shared to promote best safety practices across the industry. Degree courses have been created; books, papers and national guidance documents have been developed.

A different goal, same method applied

Now - at least for the time being - this has been turned on its head. It is no longer a question of how to keep people safe in large dense crowds but, rather, how to keep people spaced apart to reduce risk of transmission. A different goal, but the same methods are required: understanding throughput, space, capacity, density, and behaviour; designing entry systems, one-way or two-way routes and queuing areas; and creating a simple, legible system that is understandable and accessible for all users.

There is now a need to bring these skills to our highstreets as many shops and councils will be planning and managing complex people movement for the first time. A feat of collaboration will be needed to make sure that each part of the system works individually (each shop, each park, each bus stop and car park, each queue) and then looking at them in combination. It is crucial to build a positive visitor experience into this planning, so that shoppers do not feel like they are being constantly processed, checked and kept waiting. Like we saw during the Olympics, the planning can pay off, but more maths than you might think will be needed to make sure the numbers add up.

What is possible?

All of this is possible, but the government guidance does not yet provide the calculation methods and design standards needed in practise to operationalise social distancing. E.g. how many more people can you get through your street if you double the width from 1m to 2m? The answer is zero. What should the distance be between socially distanced lines in a queue? The answer is not 2m.

 The challenge of reinvigorating the high street is not just an economic one but relies on communities feeling safe outside of their homes. Since the start of the lockdown, Movement Strategies has been working with organisations to use knowledge and tools gained from years of planning people movement systems to prepare for operating and re-opening with social distancing. In a few short weeks we have developed a series of strategies which can keep our high streets moving as restrictions continue to ease, and we are working with partners to introduce technology that can monitor and measure their effectiveness in terms of safety as well as economic impact.

To find out how our unique team of people movement specialists can help you, please get in touch