Planning for Social Distancing in High-Traffic Areas

Mike Ferreira, PE

The use of this social distancing strategy will keep people moving in densely occupied spaces.

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As governments around the world have continued to loosen coronavirus restrictions and re-open the economy, there is an ongoing need to ensure social distancing takes place in high-traffic areas. Social distancing measures were easier to institute in the early days of the outbreak, where less people were likely to venture out. However, across the world, we are seeing an increase in people going back to the office, taking public transport and frequenting restaurants and bars.

While many local governments provide basic guidelines for social distancing, high-traffic areas such as public transport, offices, stadiums and restaurants would greatly benefit from a social distancing strategy that institutes a three-step process we call: Plan, Quantify and Reinforce. This process will help building owners with space planning and occupant flow, but, more importantly, it helps increase safety — and the perception on safety — for occupants.

Plan: The first step in the process is developing a social distancing plan. Building occupant populations should first be forecasted. In recent weeks, people have begun to change their behavior and venture out. Because of this shift, building operators and business owners need to accommodate more people while still maintaining appropriate social distancing. It’s important to understand physical space limitations and develop space planning strategies to achieve desired behavior.

Quantify: Use of pedestrian flow modeling allows you to quantify and quickly compare social distancing measures against each other or existing conditions. It can identify unintended consequences of a plan, such as congestion building up in a particular area, such as a hallway to an elevator or entryway. It can also quickly address accessibility concerns and anticipate behavioral or cultural responses. Once the plan has been tested, modeling can be used to tweak and improve upon the plan to ensure its success in a real-world situation.

Reinforce: The final step involves effective communication. This could include the use of audio, graphics, signage and placemaking to encourage the desired behavior. Another option that has been proposed is the use of social distancing wristbands, which may prove effective in an office environment. Well-designed signage in particular can be used to both reinforce social distancing while maintaining a sense of space and reducing the stress and anxiety levels of those people being asked to follow the stated directions.

As restrictions begin to ease and more people venture out into high-traffic areas, it is critical that building owners and facility managers are prepared. The need for social distancing will continue to be a critical mitigation tool until a vaccine becomes widely available. To avoid a spike in infections and protect the economy, those responsible can utilize the methodology above to ensure their spaces are as safe as possible, in a way that builds upon local government recommendations.

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