Social Distancing In High-Traffic Facilities

Plan, quantify, reinforce—a strategy for keeping people moving in densely occupied spaces.

By Mike Ferreira and Vince Gratton
From the August 2020 Issue

With the loosening of COVID-19 shutdown measures, the need for continued social distancing remains key to protect against further spread of the virus. This is particularly important in environments with high numbers of occupants such as malls, transportation hubs, stadiums and arenas, theaters, large hotels, and convention centers.

In some spaces, planning for social distancing has occurred in a reactive manner, with signage and floor markings being quickly introduced to achieve social distancing, particularly in those areas that require occupant queuing, or in seated or standing waiting areas. This reactive signage tends to be utilitarian in nature and uses prohibitory language and graphics that can increase stress levels and can detract from placemaking and wayfinding goals of the original facility design. Cultural differences can also impact the effectiveness of signage, and this needs to be understood.

Because the adoption of new signage strategies can be a significant capital and operational cost for a facility, an effective social distancing strategy should be developed using a three-part process we call Plan, Quantify, and Reinforce. Use of this process will allow a building owner or operator to achieve space planning efficiencies and more effective occupant flow while improving the overall user experience by increasing safety and occupant perception of safety, providing for intuitive navigation and wayfinding, and reducing stress and uncertainty.

The first step in the process is to develop the social distancing Plan. Building occupant populations should first be forecasted. Social distancing may have been easier to achieve during an initial period when building populations were significantly reduced due to work-at-home orders or due to public perception and behavior. As building populations begin to increase over time, it is important to understand physical space limitations and develop space planning strategies to achieve the desired behavior.

The next step in the process is to Quantify the plan using pedestrian flow modeling. Modeling allows the evaluator to quickly compare social distancing measures against each other or existing conditions. Pedestrian flow modeling has the added benefit of identifying unintended consequences of a given plan, such as congestion building up in the path of travel upstream or downstream from the point of action, and can quickly address accessibility concerns and behavioral and cultural responses. If adverse conditions are identified, the space plan can be modified and re-evaluated. In some cases, the model results may show that a planned measure does not achieve the desired outcome and is not worth the financial cost or disruption to normal operation to implement as part of the overall strategy.

The final step in this process is to Reinforce the plan using effective communication (audio, graphics, signage, and placemaking) to modify occupant behaviors for effective social distancing. Reinforcement may be accomplished using a signage and graphics package that complements and reinforces the sense of place intended by the architect/owner/operator of the facility.

The benefit of using the Plan, Quantify, and Reinforce process to achieve effective social distancing can be illustrated using the example of queuing on a passenger rail platform. Most people are familiar with the free-flowing chaos that typically involves this space, as passengers wait in close proximity for an arriving train and rush to board that train against the counterflow of passengers trying to disembark. Under normal conditions, this is not an ideal example of social distancing.

Figure 1 (below) illustrates the results of an effective space plan where clear travel lanes are established along with uni-directional flow along the platform. One set of stairs/escalators is dedicated to downward (departing) travel, while the opposite set of stairs/escalators is dedicated to upward (arriving) travel. Passengers waiting for inbound trains use a dedicated space at the center of the platform.

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Figure 1: Space Planning to Facilitate Social Distancing on a Subway Platform (Image: courtesy Entro)

Modeling has the potential to quickly identify whether this space plan is effective by evaluating metrics such as time in proximity (amount of time someone is within six feet of another person), or maximum proximity (number of people within six feet at various points along the platform). Figure 2 (below) shows that for the space plan identified in Figure 1 the average number of people near one another is cut in half, from over six, to an average of two to three.

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Figure 2: Quantifying the Impact of Social Distancing Using Pedestrian Modeling (Image: courtesy Jensen Hughes)

Reinforcing social distancing through effective signage can be achieved while maintaining the sense of place, as shown in the photo below. The floor graphics in this photo are designed in an intuitive way to encourage social distancing while reducing the potential to induce stress, and improving the overall experience of occupants.

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(Photo: courtesy Entro)

As seen in all the images featured here, a space plan facilitating uni-directional movement along the platform with designated waiting areas away from the platform edges proves to be an effective social distancing strategy for the example passenger rail platform. Initial model simulations showed that the full benefit of the strategy was not achieved with bi-directional vertical flow, which allowed for the plan to be modified and revalidated using the model. The well-designed signage concept maintains the architect’s vision while reinforcing the desired passenger behavior.

The need to provide for social distancing may unfortunately be with us for an extended period of time. Building owners and facility management can plan their social distancing response without sacrificing their facility’s sense of space—complementing the user experience rather than detracting from it. Adopting the Plan, Quantify, Reinforce process is an effective path to this desired endpoint.

Mike FerreiraFerreira is a vice president, transportation and a licensed fire protection engineer with Jensen Hughes, an international fire protection, security, and safety consulting firm. With more than 26 years’ experience, he has served as a member of the NFPA Committee on Smoke Management Systems, is a co-author of the ASHRAE Smoke Control Handbook, and is a past instructor for both the SFPE and NFPA smoke control seminars. Ferreira is a recognized expert in people movement and evacuation modeling, smoke control modeling, CBRN system design and threat assessment, and building airflow modeling.

Vince GrattonGratton is a partner and transit practice lead for Entro, an international placemaking and experience design firm. He brings more than 20 years of experience in both creative and technical aspects of design as a prolific designer and manager in shaping environments.

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