Thursday, March 16, 2006

Managing crowds

How does one manage crowds in a country of a billion? Say, at the site of a temple, Tirupati, where the average waiting time can be about 6 hours? It is not because of anything else, but for the fact that millions throng the temple on weekdays and another few million more for the weekends. Festival times means a few more million. One obvious solution is to have a queue with an entry fee. So, those who want the free entry would stand for a longer time in the queue with the paid queue being a little shorter. The other solution, as used in a place like Tirupati is giving each devotee a biometric bar coded darshan timing that is tamper proof, water proof and cannot be duplicated.So, once you reach the place, you get a tag with a timing. At the appointed time you reach the place and stand in a queue (of about 3 hours on an average) and get your appointed "appointment with god". In a certain hour, only a certain number of devotees are allowed, therefore crowds remain manageable.

What if this happens in a shopping complex? ICICI bank ATMs are perenially crowded, despite their huge network as are their banks esp. on weekends. Big Bazaar has seen crowds throng its shops.

Indian railways were at the receiving end some years back. There were times when people would go overnight, sleep in front of the counters and get up in the morning to be the first in queue. Once it reaches this level, as it is seen in sports events, there is no control. Fans can queue up three to four days in advance, literally camping in front of the ticket counter with food and water. The Indian railways online service is a welcome service. As the railways go more and more online, there is less crowd at the counters. The volume online is not yet enough to leave the counters empty, but it is a beginning.

For some services like airlines, where ticket volumes (in terms of numbers) are still low, online is a good option as is tele booking (but this is yet to catch on in a big way in India since trust in services that is not face to face is still quite low). Online banking took a while to take off in India. Even now there are many who do not use an online booking/banking service for fear of their transaction getting cancelled at the last minute. ICICI Bank for its part has a token numbering system where the customer draws a number and waits for her turn.The bar coded darhsan timing type biometric identifier is one idea. Big bazaar is said to be toying with this idea.

One other solution is to have many counters operating at many places. Bangalores KSRTC has a bus booking service that is almost always within a few minutes walk from any place in Bangalore, thereby reducing the number of people at a single place. McDonalds (and it has serpentine queues at many of its outlets) has a system where there are service agents who take your order on a small paper that you pass it on to the counter when your turn comes. The counters are places where people wait and think and dither before they place their final order, by letting people think in the queue, the counter is no longer a bottleneck, thereby quickening queues.

Opening the counters 24 hours or extending the working hours or giving a discount for non regular hours (happy hour banking is a solution too) are other solutions. There are many ways of crowd management, and I am sure we havent seen the last of it yet.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A very thought proving posting. Crowds occur everywhere in India and for all kinds of reasons. However, nothing seems to compare with what I have read about China during their annual new year holiday. It seems that 100s of millions travel by trains, busses and planes at the same time. Those crowds are truly monumental.