An experiment carried out by the University of Navarra shows the difficulty in maintaining social distance when moving

According to the study, it is complicated to maintain a distance of 1.5 meters between people when moving in large spaces like shopping centers. The work suggests that to keep a safe interpersonal distance the density should not exceed 0.16 people per m2 (6 m2 per person)

Descripcion de la imagen
From left to right: Iñaki Echeverría; Raúl Cruz; Iker Zuriguel; César Martín; Luis Fernando Urrea; Ángel Garcimartín.
FOTO: Manuel Castells
19/01/21 09:30 Enrique Cobos

An experiment by the University of Navarra has shown that it is very difficult to guarantee social distancing in situations of mobility. More than forty volunteers participated in a study coordinated by the Department of Physics and Applied Mathematics of the School of Sciences together with the School of Architecture of the University. The paper has been published in the scientific journal Scientific Reports.

The experiment sought to find out whether it is possible to maintain social distancing within a moving crowd. Volunteers participated under two conditions: Walking in a closed enclosure of 75 m2; and the prior knowledge that they had to try to maintain the social distance.

 “Our results show that, when we move, we are not able to maintain a safe distance, even in very low density conditions and where our sole purpose is to maintain that distance,” notes Iñaki Echeverría, PhD student from the School of Sciences of the University of Navarra and principal researcher of this study.

Avoid crowded places

The publication of the results of this research coincides with the implementation of new restrictions in the third wave of the pandemic. Some of them refer to the capacity limitations in shopping centers and large areas. “The study shows that the fulfillment of social distancing in these spaces is often physically impossible for us, because of the limitations of both space and density, and therefore it is best to avoid them.”

The work suggests that, to ensure the minimum distance of one and a half meters, the density should not exceed 0,16 people per m2 (6 m2 per person). “Based on the Spanish regulation, the capacity of the shopping centers under normal conditions is 0,5 people per square meter. At the most critical time of the pandemic (April and May last year), because of capacity reductions, densities fell to 0,17 people per square meter," the researchers add.

Another of the conclusions from the study is related to the speed of pedestrians. “In the experiment, it was observed that walking fast leads to a higher instance of non-compliance with social distancing rules. On the other hand, the time needed to return to maintaining social distance (to return to a situation where the distance to the nearest pedestrian is safe) is less. So it's not entirely clear what's most convenient to avoid non-compliance with the rule," he adds.

For Iñaki Echeverría, this research could continue with the analysis of more realistic situations that occur from day to day: Agglomerations in streets, shopping centers and other places where it is difficult to maintain the social distance recommended by the health authorities. Simplifying reality through the study of a small, controlled experiment can help us establish density constraints earlier in urban spaces based on scientific evidence.”


More information:

Echeverría-Huarte, I., Garcimartín, A., Hidalgo, R.C. et al. Estimating density limits for walking pedestrians keeping a safe interpersonal distancing. Sci Rep 11, 1534 (2021).

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