By Elli Leadbeater
A giant pavement built in an old warehouse may make frustrating Saturday shopping crushes a thing of the past.
Scientists can now study a crush under lab conditions
Scientists are using the computer-controlled surface to recreate all sorts of pedestrian nightmares.
They hope that their hi-tech sidewalk will help to identify what makes for user-friendly surfaces and streets.
The work at Pamela - the Pedestrian Accessibility & Movement Environment Laboratory - has been described at the British Association's Science Festival.
"If you think of places such as Oxford Circus around Christmas time, pedestrian capacity is a big issue," said Professor Nick Tyler of University College London.
"How much of that is just due to having too many people in the space, and how much could be improved by thinking about how that space is organised?"
The artificial pavement covers 80 square metres of floor space, and is supported by 208 mechanical legs which can change its slope and evenness.
Researchers can alter the lighting and noise conditions, creating scenarios ranging from street-light-illuminated midnight scenes to a dawn landscape accompanied by birdsong.
The Pamela deck can be made uneven and tilted
Volunteers navigate their way around hazards such as steps and holes whilst their heart rates, eye movements and geographical positions are monitored automatically.
Pamela will generate data that should lead to improvements in the design of pavements, footways and concourses, and will enable new ideas and products to be tried out.
Research of this kind could inform design decisions on issues such as surface types, colours, smoothness, slopes and lighting.
Similarly, the laboratory can be used to study changes in pedestrian capacity resulting from changes in the physical dimensions of pedestrian environments, or the need to step up, across or down from a bus or train to a platform, for example.
This is expected to improve the design of pedestrian spaces and transport interchanges.
Professor Tyler hopes the research will get to the bottom of those problems that generally go unnoticed, but which can nonetheless make the lives of less mobile people miserable.
Lighting above changes the pavement environment
He has already shown why people are more likely to fall over small steps than they are large ones.
"If people died from falling over a 2mm step, then we would have already taken notice of these things," he said.
"But people don't die, they just feel stupid and they don't report it, so we don't know that it's a problem."
Poorly designed streets can have a severe impact on the lives of less mobile people.
Professor Tyler said: "Older people often start to feel a lack of confidence because they fall down, and they stop going out. They can feel very isolated."