Vivid’s crowd control

The crowding last night at Circular Quay for the Vivid Festival for the 9pm drone show has attracted some attention (9 News,, someone on Reddit with the same Cahill Expressway vantage point as someone at The Age). Some people mention the Seoul Halloween crush, also at night, also on a festive occasion, in comment threads.

I was there, not for the drone show but trying to get out after a Vivid harbour cruise that finished at 8, which meant walking upstream to Wynyard against the flow of people trying to get to Circular Quay for the show, in a group of seven adults and six children all under 10. It’s the second time in my life I’ve worried about being hurt in a crowd crush.

The first time was also at Circular Quay, it was the closing night of the 2000 Olympics and fireworks were scheduled. We knew to get there early for 10pm fireworks and so sat grumpily on the footpath in the sun with others, including families, from the afternoon onwards. And it filled, and it filled, and after a while there was no sitting room, and after a while children were crying and crying, and after a while the crowd swayed back and forth in waves while people shouted “stop pushing, stop pushing”, and after a while people having panic attacks were being crowd-surfed backwards to paramedics who couldn’t get into the crowd.

There’s good coverage of crowd crushes in this 2015 article, Hajj crush: how crowd disasters happen, and how they can be avoided:

It was sunny and there wasn’t really a plan, other than to wander the streets and enjoy ourselves. Towards the end of the day, we came to a crossroads flooded with thousands of people[…] A few police were stationed behind crash barriers at the side shouting helpful things like, “Keep moving, please!” At one point I remember asking one of them how much longer this would last, only to be yelled at angrily[…] The idea that I was in danger seemed silly, and indeed some people were laughing. We were outside. There was no urgency. How could anybody die from lack of space beneath this empty sky?

Crowd crushes are often created a long way away from the disaster, by people who can still move relatively freely and are trying to get somewhere, or even being yelled at to keep moving keep moving. They aren’t aware that somewhere ahead where they can’t see, they’re pressing people into each other, or into a dead end, and if they become aware they can’t stop because of the crowd behind them.

If there had been a crowd crush last night, it might have been created by our group, trying to walk south on George St against the crowds moving north and trying to stay together despite the best efforts of children who are small enough to dart clusters of adults, or it might have been created by the sheer volume of people flowing flowing flowing out of Wynyard and heading north even when Circular Quay was already swaying body-to-body. Past a point, crowd control at events like Vivid is specialized and can be counter-intuitive (for example, you can place strategic barriers to achieve certain effects on the crowd’s movement). But there were several basics that really would have helped:

  • Information for the crowds beyond “check social media” as the organisers are telling the public to do today ahead of the second drone show. Social media isn’t an emergency communications channel; both Twitter and Facebook are actively hostile to logged out site visitors. No one is going to create a Twitter account to find out how whether Wynyard is open. There needs to be easy to find up-to-date safety updates on Vivid’s own website, on the Transport NSW website, on the City of Sydney’s website, at the train stations, and on crowd control signs in the actual area.
  • Some (sign-posted! discoverable!) side streets or paths held aside for people trying to go upstream. There were many people who were trying to leave either because they saw the lights earlier or because the crowd was too much for them. In particular, there were loads of prams with infants last night, that’s not going to go well for anyone if the density reaches the swaying phase. Give people a safe way to get out while there’s still the possibility.

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