How to Walk Through a Crowd

Allen Faulton
6 min readAug 17, 2018

A Modern Survival Guide Interlude

This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook for navigating and interacting with the modern world. And this article is an interlude, an aside that talks about a tip for modern living. This isn’t a philosophical insight or a deep discussion of human impulses, or an explanation of some major phenomenon; it’s just something people might want to know. And a lot of people don’t know how to move in a crowd. Let’s see if we can fix that!

Unless you live off the edge of the map somewhere, you will eventually have to move through a crowd of people. And at this point, a lot of us tend to get stressed. We get mad when people run into us. We get in each other’s way. We get frustrated when we can’t move around. And then we make the problem worse.

So let’s not do that. Here are five tips you can use to make your experience better when walking in and around a crowd:

  • Find gaps
  • Move deliberately
  • Adjust your expectations
  • Avoid bottlenecks
  • Keep Moving

Find the Gaps

Let’s start with an obvious point: you’re not going to be able to shove your way through a crowd by running in a straight line at any kind of good speed. At some point you’re going to run up against someone who is bigger or more belligerent than you are, and then you’re going to stop (and probably get in an altercation). So don’t do that.

Instead, remember that crowds operate kind of like flocks — everyone is unconsciously basing their movement on the people around them, moving to the rhythm of the group and trying to keep a bubble of personal space around themselves. This generates a certain amount of random motion, which means that gaps open up between people as they walk.

So — find the gaps. If you’re trying to move through a crowd quickly, don’t walk in a straight line, but rather move diagonally into gaps as they open in front of you. Use your shoulders, not your elbows, to claim space if you need to. Shoulders exert personal space; elbows cause problems. Zig-zag towards your goal, and you’ll get there faster.

Move Deliberately

A component of flock behavior is that people will unconsciously create room for objects that are moving at a deliberate pace and predictable direction. Note that this only works if people can see you — if you’re coming from behind, find the gaps. But if you’re moving into an oncoming crowd, as long as you are moving with a confident posture and deliberate pacing, most people will get out of your way.

It is significantly easier to do this if you treat an oncoming crowd like oncoming traffic — stay to the right. People are trained (by driving) to subconsciously sort themselves into lanes if they see someone coming. Don’t confuse the issue by picking the wrong lane.

And again, don’t run. Running doesn’t leave people enough time to react; you will run into people, and then you will have to deal with the consequences. A “deliberate pace” is at best a fast walk.

Adjust Your Expectations

You aren’t going to be able to sprint through a crowd to get to your destination. So stop thinking that’s an option. Treat crowds like traffic jams and add fifteen minutes to your time to destination. Patience is a virtue; there’s no need to stress out because you’re trying to do something that can’t be done.

It’s also a good idea to understand that as soon as you enter a crowd, someone is eventually going to jostle you, so leave your previous expectations of personal space behind. It’s not worth the effort of getting mad every time someone jogs your elbow. They almost certainly didn’t mean it, and there’s very little point to escalating a situation if someone accidentally steps on your foot. Just chalk it up to the cost of doing business and move on.

Also bear in mind that no one in a crowd gives a crap about you. They don’t have your problems or goals. They aren’t your friends, relatives, or business partners. It’s fairly pointless to expect them to get out of your way by default; everyone in a crowd is in the crowd for the same reason: not enough space and too many people. Don’t expect preferential treatment just because you have someplace to be.

That being said, if you really need to clear a way, just start yelling “Excuse me, I need to get through!” Most people are nice enough to move if they hear you.

Avoid Bottlenecks

Specifically, avoid creating bottlenecks in crowds, which slow everyone down, raise stress levels, and have the potential for creating dangerous situations. Under no circumstances should you do any of the following things:

  • Stopping in doorways
  • Stopping at the top or bottom of escalators
  • Stopping suddenly in the middle of a walkway
  • Turning suddenly against the flow of the crowd

Some of these are mild irritations. Others are outright dangerous — escalators, in particular, can be very hazardous to your health and the health of others if you block the flow of people getting on or off. Remember that, fundamentally, an escalator is a bunch of moving metal teeth on which people stand. Escalators are perfectly happy to eat you if you let them. And blocking a doorway in a crowded environment, such as a subway station, is a good way to catch an elbow or get trampled in an emergency situation.

If you have to stop, the best thing to do in a crowd is to get out of the main flow. Stand to the side of hallways. Find eddies in an open crowd where others have stopped. Or just get out of the crowd if you can.

Ultimately — Keep Moving!

In most crowds, unless you’re stopping specifically with the crowd to look at something, it’s better to keep moving. If you need a break, working your way to an edge can give breathing space. If you can’t see, simply getting around taller people or finding open spaces can give you better visibility to see where you’re going. And if you want out, it’s best to move at sideways at an angle to the crowd’s direction, rather than trying to go against the flow.

When determining your direction, do not trust crowds. The motion of the crowd may not be the direction you want to go; remember that the intelligence of a crowd is vastly less than that of its individual members, and crowds can behave like macro-organisms with goals that do not line up with yours. Like rowing a boat, keep your eye on the direction you want to travel rather than letting the motion of the group carry you along.

Last but not least, in an emergency be aware that crowds have a tendency to become herds, and herds have a tendency to stampede. Do not get caught in a stampede. If at all possible, move out of a crowd before it goes nuts.

If you are caught in a stampeding crowd, though, there are some things you need to do immediately, because unless there’s a monster, fire, flood, or alien invasion right behind you, you are in more danger from the crowd than you are from the emergency.

If you are with other people, hold hands or link arms to avoid becoming separated. If by yourself, do your best to keep your feet at all costs — if you fall, you’re going to get hurt. Move with the motion of the crowd until you are able to move out of the crowd, or to the edges of the crowd. Use diagonal movement to find gaps as fast as you can to get out and evaluate other options for escape. And remember — if you see someone else fall, help them up if you can.

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