Lanes in Crowds

Groups of people moving in opposite directions spontaneously create lanes of traffic.

In nature — from atoms to human crowds — two groups moving in opposite directions often spontaneously organize into interwoven lanes flowing in their respective directions. Now researchers have built a mathematical model for this behavior, building on Einstein’s observations of Brownian motion.

To test their model, the researchers performed numerical simulations and experiments with pedestrians. Intriguingly, they found that introducing rules like “always pass on the right” created unexpected results, such as tilted lanes. With their model verified — at least for low-density crowds — the group hope to uncover other hidden patterns within crowds. (Image and research credit: K. Bacik et al.; via Physics World)

An animation showing one pedestrian experiment.
In their validation experiments, the researchers filmed groups of pedestrians walking past one another under different conditions. Note the lanes that form as the two groups interleave.
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