Thursday, 21 August 2014

The thronging crowd - a test of mettle

If you've ever been at Flinders Street Station during the evening peak then you know the experience of being in a crowd where people are so focused on their own objective that they lose - or disregard - the people around them.

A growing crowd of eager commuters stands at the traffic lights, waiting to cross the road and enter the Station. The green man appears on the lights and we surge forward. Like the release of a dam gate, we flow in the one direction until we hit the next barrier - the turnstiles we need to navigate to enter the station. There is a narrowing of focus. This is where the jostling starts. People suddenly change direction; they cut off another's trajectory. Their heads are down, their eyes trained straight ahead. We're through the turnstiles and then there are some stairs (about 10?) to negotiate. The arrivals and departures board is right above these stairs. People stop suddenly to look up and confirm the platform from which their train is leaving. People suddenly change direction to get around the people who have turned to pillars of stone. Down the stairs and we're in an even narrower space. Most people are going into the station and so have swelled to take up the whole space. Pity the people moving against this tide. They resort to bags and elbows. Some try to keep left, but then find themselves trapped behind a SMP (slow moving person). They change direction suddenly to cut in front, usually without regard to anyone who might be behind or beside them.

I run this gauntlet regularly. I try to remain aware of those around me, but find myself becoming more bullish as I'm whacked by urban weaponry - backpacks, shopping bags, umbrellas swinging wildly, even jauntily.

Today was particularly challenging even before I reached the station. It made me think about a drama warm up exercise which is about building physical awareness of the space and the people within it. Everyone moves slowly at first in any direction, dodging and weaving through the throng. The speed builds. People rarely collide. I believe it is because participants in such an exercise are absolutely present and acutely aware of their bodies in relation to others. I've done this in a group where half the group is blindfolded. Again, people rarely, collide.

Thinking about this today, I wondered about how this kind of awareness in everyday life and activities could improve crowd behaviour, making everything easier and happier. I was reminded about my first visit to India a few years ago. I visited the southern city of Chennai. My hotel was on the opposite side of the road to the location of the nearest bank. I needed to get cash and thought nothing of stepping out to engage in the ordinary activity of visiting an ATM.

On stepping out of the hotel's calm, I was immediately confronted with the practical problem of how to cross the road. The voluminous traffic never stopped. There were no designated crossings or traffic lights. Observing the traffic - reading it as a surfer might read the surf - the chaos soon revealed an order of cooperation and awareness. Vehicle horns were tooted, but the sound was a happy beep that said "Just letting you know I'm over here".

As I stood marooned on the wrong side of the road, I watched some locals cross the road. I was horrified when I saw them launch from the safety of the kerb. As they made their way across the road, the traffic happily moved around them. It was like throwing a pebble in a pond. I was astonished to see them arrive safely on the other side. I took a deep breath but my courage failed me. I waited for some more people to come along so I could follow in their wake. They did and I did. It resulted in terrified exhilaration. I suppose that living with so many people teaches you awareness.

If I applied the same principles to the evening rush at Flinders Street Station, I fear you would find my body, trampled and bruised at the end of the rush. Generally Melburnians are great to be in a crowd with. My theory is that practice makes the difference: attendance at AFL football games in huge crowds from an early age teaches people how to get from A to B when B isn't even visible and there are 10,000 people in the way. The personal electronic device is one of the problems. Headphones are plugged in. Heads are down, rather than being up and engaged with the world.

All of this thinking leaves me pondering a further question - will we evolve to have another set of eyes in the top of our heads so we can look at the device AND see where we're going and will we gain hearing sensors all over our bodies so we can be plugged in but still hear the rest of the world?

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