I Saw a Stampede on the Metro

France won the World Cup. Once the final ended, people all over Paris went out to the streets to celebrate. At Nation I saw impromptu dancing, drivers waving tricolore flags, and car passengers climbing out of their cars to wave their own flags. But the real celebration was elsewhere, on Champs-Elysees in the central business district. This was well covered in the media; the Guardian cites an estimate of one million people going to Champs-Elysees to celebrate, and ESPN reports riots (which I didn’t witness but can easily believe happened given the general conduct I did see) and 110,000 police and gendarmerie officers.

The sidewalks were crowded and it was difficult to move; there were too few street closures, so pedestrians were confined to narrow zones for the most part. But the crowding was worst at the Metro stations, and RATP should learn from this example and do better next time there are large celebrations, perhaps next Bastille Day.

The problem is cascading closures. In London, where the Underground platforms are narrower and have fewer cross-passageways than the Metro platforms here, closures are routine at Bank because often the passageways get dangerously overcrowded. These closures cascade: once Bank is closed to limit crowding, passengers swarm the adjacent stations, such as Moorgate and London Bridge, which are not built to handle the typical Bank crowds, forcing TfL to close them as well.

France won the game around 7 in the evening Paris time. By 8, some stations on Champs-Elysees were closed, and as I sat on my severely delayed Metro Line 1 train, with passengers banging on the train’s walls and ceiling, I heard that they were closing more, ultimately going express from Palais-Royal to Argentine and skipping all the CBD stations, including Etoile. I got off at Argentine, as did practically the entire train. Not designed to handle the crowds of the entire CBD at once, Argentine’s platform was jammed. I spent maybe ten minutes trying to make my way from where I got off to the front end of the platform, where the only exits were, and failed, and at a few points the mass of passengers was such that I thought a stampede was likely. The only reason nobody fell onto the tracks was the platform edge doors, installed during the automation of Line 1.

Trains kept serving the station, dumping more and more people. The only mechanism preventing more passengers from getting on was that the crowding was so intolerable that some people started getting back onto the trains, including eventually me. I couldn’t even get off at the next stop, Porte Maillot – the platform was fine but the train was too crowded – so I got off in the suburbs, at Les Sablons, and walked back east.

Perhaps RATP did eventually close Argentine. But both RATP and the city made crucial mistakes that evening, which they should fix in the future.

First, they should have made the trains free to improve passenger circulation. Paying at the turnstiles takes time. This is especially bad in Paris, where there are separate gates for entry (which are turnstiles) and exit (which are one-way doors), unlike the two-way turnstiles of New York. Moreover, unlike New York, Paris has no large emergency doors that can be opened. All passengers were going in one direction – out – so RATP should have propped the exit doors open to let passengers out more smoothly.

Free transit for special events is routine in Paris. The trains are free around New Year’s, in order to encourage people to take the train rather than add to car traffic and pollution (and perhaps drunk driving). Bastille Day celebrations and any future victory at the World Cup or Euro Cup should be added to the list of free transit events, not to discourage people from driving but to prevent stampedes.

And second, the city should have closed the surrounding area to non-emergency car traffic. Champs-Elysees was closed, but there wasn’t much place to spill over; the side street I took once I tried leaving had a narrow sidewalk, and police cars were parked in a way to restrict people to a constrained exit path. There is no parallel street that can act as a spillover route, and between the Rond-Point and Etoile there is only one crossing street wider than about 25 meters, Avenue George V on the south side (whereas almost all rail alternatives to the Metro Line 1 are on the north side). With narrow side streets, it’s especially important to dedicate space to pedestrians and emergency vehicles and not to cars. This was as far as I can tell not done, making it hard for people to leave the most crowded areas. In contrast, Etoile itself, with twelve avenues radiating from its circle, was not so crowded, as people had escape routes.

World Cup victories are rare enough that cities understandably don’t design their entire layout based on them. But when they do happen, it’s critical to have a plan, and the same is true of other big celebrations, which often occur annually on national days. If passengers are overwhelming the subway, it’s critical to quickly do whatever the agency can to increase throughput at station passageways as well as on the tracks. And if pedestrians are overwhelming the streets above ground, it’s critical to give them more street space, including for entry and exit.

28 comments

  1. Tatil Sever

    I don’t know why you expect the authorities to be better prepared for such an event. My experience driving to Nice a few years ago when a forest fire forced the freeway to close made me not to expect France to be any more organized than an average Middle Eastern country. The dry Mediterranean climate in the middle of July couldn’t possibly be causing the first such forest fire in the region. Yet, there were no detour signs directing traffic, either at the off-ramp or anywhere else along the alternate route. We got some verbal help when we got some face time with one of the few officers at the off-ramp. We dutifully followed his suggested route (and the thousands of other cars) through a windy mountain road leading to the old coastal highway.

    Every one of those cars ended up making a U-turn, but only after reaching the spot where they also shut down the coastal highway. No signs or radio announcements indicating such a closure or officers directing traffic, so many people had to drive a few hours through a number of smallish towns in a long convoy all the way to the endpoint before each driver got the nasty surprise. (All that traffic in the opposite direction weren’t cars coming from Nice after all.) After some time spent in aimless confusion, we came across some officers directing the convoy to go back to the freeway, which they claimed was now open. Another hour of driving got us back *to* the freeway, but not *on* it, as it was (surprise!) still shut down. Workers there were directing people to use the coastal highway, totally oblivious to what was going on at the coast and incredulous that any officers would be telling people to get back to the freeway. By that point, it was quite late, so we we gave up and started looking for a place to spend the night, but even the gas stations were packed with people sleeping in their cars.

    I never thought a developed country would utterly fail to disseminate reliable detour instructions to any police officers or highway workers during a fairly routine emergency in a well populated area. (Freeway was open by morning and we saw no sign of a large scale fire that would justify the chaos of the night before.) If it was a fast moving major fire, thousands would be trapped and get burnt to a crisp that night.

  2. R. W. Rynerson

    Thanks for your observations. Transport managements often are caught flat-footed by infrequent major events due to being unwilling to invest time in identifying contingencies. Events like the bridge lifts for the naval visitors to the Portland Rose Festival occur annually and police, traffic and transit people learn from their predecessors. Infrequent events depend on reports from other cities. When Edmonton won the Stanley Cup some people decided to climb on the roofs of trolley coaches that were stranded in the crowd. So when Denver was in the final game for the Stanley Cup I related that incident to our security people. To their credit they acted on the information and security personnel were waiting when victory-soaked fans arrived to dance on the roofs of our LRV’s.

    Later in Denver our Super Bowl football victory brought drunken crowds into Lower Downtown streets. The police downtown were demanding that we bring in more buses to get the people who wanted to leave on their way. Drifting tear gas interfered with bus operations. Police on the perimeter were stopping buses from coming into downtown. i was told later that this counter-productive control had been discussed with the police and would not happen again. However, the senior police officers of that era were retired even before I was. (And perhaps the Super Bowl victory was a truly isolated event.)

    Even a few days’ advance thought can make a big difference. When a flu pandemic was forecasted, Denver transit staff met to identify actions that might be needed. It turned out that a historical quarterly offered a detailed account of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, including the effects on streetcar service. That and government health info went into the discussion. It took some staff time and the flu didn’t reach major levels, but given the size of the potential event I think it was a wise use of time.

    I hope that at least a few transport professionals will read your account and ask themselves if the same type of problem could occur in their system. Then give some thought as to how they would deal with it.

    • F-Line to Dudley

      I dunno, Boston has handled every sports championship of the last 15 years without the always-melting-down T ever getting extra-special melty. Transit Police even knew ahead of time to blockade the Commonwealth Ave. portal on the Green Line from rioting Red Sox fans trying to storm down into the tunnels when they finally broke the curse in 2004. They’ll put the otherwise rarely-used Brattle Loop platform at Government Center in-service to flush City Hall Plaza and Boston Garden crowds with extra Gov’t Ctr.-Lechmere shuttles, and put Kenmore Loop in-service to run Reservoir-Kenmore shuttles on the D line to flush Kenmore Square. It’s already regular-season Sox home game practice to stuff Blandford St. Yard near the B Line portal full of trolleys waiting to be scrambled inbound at the final out, and to run extra gameday-peak Worcester Line service levels turning at Framingham to backstop Back Bay and Yawkey. If the Kenmore subway stop becomes dangerously overcrowded there’s a set trigger point where they’ll temporarily shut the entrances and direct the crowds to the portal stops (Fenway on the D, Blandford on the B) until it’s safe to reopen. Visitors are well-informed beforehand that those are the go-to backup options.

      But then again, the Boston Marathon is 1 year older than the Green Line is so they’ve had yearly practice at transit-managing a city-busting crowd since literal Day 1 of rapid transit in the city. That almost certainly gives them a leg up over bigger cities that can manage daily crowds better, but nonetheless find themselves snagged in times of extreme-outlier crowding. While other cities also stage big annual Marathons, nowhere else are those crowds as outsized relative to the size and transit throughput of the host city as they are with Boston’s. And yet they manage it like clockwork because local officials across Eastern Mass. are never out-of-practice with their contingencies. Every third Monday of April it’s showtime for those contingencies, and fucking it all up to hell on Marathon Monday is a bona fide career-ender for someone in municipal gov’t or transpo management along the event route. They’ve got Marathon Monday down to such a science (doubly so with all the extra security implemented after the bombings 5 years ago), and virtually no “spontaneous” events are capable of chucking any bigger stampede on the city than what they have to plan for each year’s Marathon. So basically it’s the same sliding scale of Marathon contingencies deployed for any case, with the only difference being amount of advance notice–days vs. months–for the more spontaneous events like championships or rallies (i.e. more a difference in amount of overtime paid than amount of advance prep required). They already know exactly where the crowds are going to cluster, which pressure points are going to put maximum stress on the transit system, and where to chuck the extra resources to firewall those pressure points from collapse.

      People in Boston, fortunately, are a hell of a lot more predictable than the weather in Boston. As I write this post service is still all effed up systemwide because a line of flash-flood thunderstorms that kicked Eastern Mass’s ass about 12 hours ago during the height of PM commute.

      • Michael James

        F-Line & Rynerson:
        All well and good but I think you are comparing scales that differ by a quantum. A football match has a crowd one 20th of what occurs in Paris from time-to-time. Indeed very few cities have a transit system that can bring so many people into its centre in such a short time. Even Times Square NYE only gets about 200,000. The Boston marathon gets about half a million spectators but that is over a long course and a long day; a bit like the Tour de France (which is usually the world’s most watched sporting event but this year was probably eclipsed by the World Cup … maybe, but only if you count the tv audience worldwide). This event, on the Champs Elysees, was different in that it happened in such a sudden rush. Bastille Day and other events with huge crowds, such as the final of the Tour de France on Champs Elysees, the crowds build up over many hours if not half a day or more. As Alon explained this happened in about one hour after France won the WC.

        And while we can all agree that RATP and the City of Paris, police etc. should have been better prepared, in fact the system did cope, if imperfectly. Alon used an misleading headline (and he doesn’t have a sub-editor to blame!) because there wasn’t an actual stampede. If there had been there would have been casualties which there weren’t. Paris Metro line 1 is one of the highest-performing in the world with platform-aligned doors, fully automated and can run trains with headways of 85 seconds. It carries 725,000 on an average weekday but that number probably tried to use it in an hour or so in on Sunday.

        • Alon Levy

          Even in medium-size cities you see protests in the mid-six figures (e.g. Israel’s largest to date is said to have had 400,000, without any rail transit whatsoever), and bigger ones occasionally see a million people – IIRC there were more than a million people in London protesting Bush when he arrived in the middle of the war on Iraq.

          I’m calling what I saw a stampede because when it takes me 10 minutes to move 20 meters and I’m being jostled around by a mass of people, and someone loses their glasses and everyone has to squeeze more to make room around this person so they can search (they did find their glasses), there’s no other way to describe it.

          • Michael James

            Alon Levy, 2018/07/18 – 09:20

            I’m calling what I saw a stampede because … there’s no other way to describe it.

            Nah. Definitely not a stampede by the well-understood meaning of the word (see below). It is a “crush” which is, to me, just as scary (and apparently more dangerous, see below); in fact I see that I used the term crush in my very first post.

            A stampede is uncontrolled concerted running as an act of mass impulse among herd animals or a crowd of people in which the group collectively begins running, often in an attempt to escape a perceived threat.

            Crushes are very often referred to as stampedes but, unlike true stampedes, they can cause many deaths. Crowd density is more important than size. A density of four people per square meter begins to be dangerous, even if the crowd is not very large.

          • Alon Levy

            Okay, by this definition, it was definitely a crush. I can’t estimate the density but it has to be more than 4/m^2, because 4/m^2 is the average at rush hour on the busiest subway lines in New York (the 2/3 and the pre-SAS 4/5) and what I experienced on the platform at Argentine was definitely more crowded than that.

          • Michael James

            Alon Levy, 2018/07/18 – 09:20

            Even in medium-size cities you see protests in the mid-six figures (e.g. Israel’s largest to date is said to have had 400,000, without any rail transit whatsoever), and bigger ones occasionally see a million people – IIRC there were more than a million people in London protesting Bush when he arrived in the middle of the war on Iraq.

            First, many of those crowd sizes get seriously exaggerated, by everyone from the organisers, the police and the media. As per my previous post, that doesn’t necessarily make them less dangerous and scary (a “crush” isn’t defined by absolute crowd size, though the bigger the crowd the more likely there will be multiple crushes at various locations in the zone, and fewer places to escape it). The so-called “million-man march” on the Washington Mall is probably more like a few hundred thousand. The reason why that crowd on the Champs Elysees is more credible is that this is one of the biggest public spaces in the world (outside Asia I suppose); absolutely no comparison with places like Times Square or Trafalgar Square or some Israeli crowd spread over a long route etc. In fact, in my own experience the Place de la Bastille on 14 July beats out all these too, in that it, combined with all the 9 major streets leading into it, is a vastly bigger space. Incidentally the solidarity march after the Charlie Hebdo massacres was claimed to be >2m, but it was spread over a long route (and really I suspect was not that size anyway–though it terminated at Bastille so may have ended up with such a size?).

            Second, as I said in my post, those crowds you and others mention, have grown over a much longer time period. I repeat again, what you yourself wrote/implied in your article, the overwhelming feature of this event was its rapidity in building. And unplanned, spontaneous, unofficial, if perhaps predictable.

            Third, I don’t necessarily disagree with your concept of improving exits, though (despite what is claimed about “stampedes” versus “crushes”) allowing a crowd to move too fast might exacerbate a problem. And on the street above was there really room to accommodate a rush out of the Metro without itself causing a problem? Perhaps we saw one weakness of the fully-automated driverless trains, in that the sensible thing to have done when the station (platform) filled up was to not open the train doors there, but to move on to the next station? (Though one assumes they have protocols in place to handle events like station fires, or terrorist events?) But in these kinds of rare incidents, learning is almost always done by experience, so I am sure they will manage better next time.

          • Michael James

            I’m watching the recap of yesterday’s stage 12 of the Tour de France. They estimated the crowd at 1 million lining the 16km of the famous Alpe d’Heuz ascent; but who knows?
            They would have had to walk up to their viewing positions as the road is closed to traffic the previous day. So it’s true you can accumulate giant crowds with zero transport and nowhere near major cities …

            As an aside the SBS commentators say that it was actually a good-natured crowd compared to many years, despite what we saw on the tv news. Clearly the news selective filters the few seconds of newsworthy footage and we get a very biased view (the spectator who possibly tried to push over Froome was arrested).

    • Untangled

      At least it wasn’t like NJT before and after the Superbowl in 2014 and they had time to plan.

      • adirondacker12800

        The Sports and Exhibition Authority and NFL didn’t want to spend the money. The original plans for the station were five tracks running through in a loop. That would have cost too much so people wait. They could have had 500 buses poised to swoop in but that costs money. Nobody wanted to spend it.

  3. Michael James

    I have always been amazed that those humungous crowds one gets in Paris a few times a year don’t lead to horrible crushes and panic-riots. But they don’t. Not like often happens in London such as the early-80s NYE stampede that killed many and hospitalised 50+; not to mention Hillsborough that killed 90+, or the 2011 riots.
    Because I have a serious aversion to such crowding I generally avoided the hotspots–I would watch the Tour de France from my local bridge (Pont Marie, when the tour used the riverside expressway) where you could look down on the riders, rather than go to Champs Elysees where you’d be lucky to get to the front which is the only place you’d see anything. Once I went to the Bastille for 14 July–possibly it was 1989 which was crazier than usual–and swore off ever getting into that situation again. There was possibly 1 million crowding the Place and all the side-streets, all closed to traffic, and you really couldn’t move in or out. But crowds on these occasions are in good mood. (As an aside, in London the crowds for almost all such gatherings will come alcohol “preloaded” and aggro-preloaded too. The Notting Hill festival is another event to avoid for the impossible crowds and the drunken aggro. By late afternoon there is always a lot of broken glass lying around.)

    The crowded Metro situation you described would freak me out. I’d have probably never gone into the Metro but chosen to walk, which is always an option in Paris.
    Not sure about your suggestion on Metro entrances and exits: better to retain the orderly one-way system that is familiar to everyone and doesn’t set up potential clashes. It was likely the limitation was at street level where the exiting crowds ran into a wall of people; whatever you did to the stations may have changed nothing.
    I agree that they could have made it free, but I don’t know if any system can cope with such a rush. M1 should probably have been closed early on. There are at least ten cross lines that get close enough to take a lot of the load (and they should only stop at stations either side of the one on the Champs Elysees, ie. the relevant station should be closed too), and other than that Parisians are usually ok with walking (which they do during those transport strikes).
    I agree that it is a surprise they weren’t better prepared, not only because they have this situation a few times a year, and it was totally predictable a week ahead. The decision will come from the top and it is usually toxic managerialism that prevents sensible action (especially these days where meeting financial performance is given such overweighting). In the middle of July, the person with sole authority to do this is probably en vacation in Reunion …

  4. Michael Thomas

    This sounds like a pricing problem. It is axiomatic but nonetheless true, in 100 percent of cases, that if you reduce the price of a good, more will be consumed. The solution to large crowds in transit stations is not to reduce the price of transit to zero but to raise the price of the transit significantly to reduce demand. This will reduce the crowding on the inbound side, and obversely on the outbound side as well. Yes more people will drive, but more people will also car pool and walk.

    • Alon Levy

      That’s hard to arrange efficiently. The trains weren’t overcrowded. Only some specific stations were. It’s not possible to hike fares just at these stations, because Paris Metro fares are flat, so exiting is free. The problem is low throughput at exits, and this is something that propping the exit doors (which are hard to push) open for the duration would solve.

    • Nicolas Centa

      Politically it is impossible to hike the fare and particularly for this kind of popular event.

      It would be interpreted as a message for the poor kids of the suburbs to stay home and not come crowd the rich city centers, which for the government would kind of defeat the point of winning the World Cup.

      Isn’t surge pricing for roads a controversy even in the US?

      https://www.npr.org/2017/12/12/570248568/are-40-toll-roads-the-future

    • Michael James

      Michael Thomas, 2018/07/18 – 10:48

      This sounds like a pricing problem.

      Ha! And you sound like a pure econocrat in some ivory tower! Probably try to charge your kids a surcharge for staying up late to watch some special event on your tv?
      Not only would none of the politicians (from Prez Macron, to Paris city hall, to RATP management) in the French Republic, refuse to change a spontaneous people’s event to one restricted to those with more spending money. But the majority of Parisians use e-travel cards. And that would have been one surefire way to generate a genuine riot … (in that case I might have overcome my a version to crowds and joined them in lynching whoever was responsible …)

  5. N

    How well staffed are Paris Metro stations? In London there are staff at every Underground station who can act to restrict or prevent entry and ensure that trains were not allowed to stop at platforms which were already full. They direct people to exits they may not be aware of and ‘reverse’ ticket gates and escalators to ease crowds. At the bigger stations staff are more plentiful, so there are enough to have some ‘eyes and hands on’ at the point of interest and others in the office monitoring it all and updating control rooms. Not sure how many staff Parisian stations have, but if it is just one or two at a busy station with multiple entrances, then they are most likely tied to the office screens and phones and it could be hard to safely implement meaningful crowd control. The problem with systems that run 99% of the time with minimal need for human interaction is that they are not often geared up to deal with abnormal usage very well as it is not cost efficient to have ‘slack’ capacity. That said, it can’t have been beyond the wit of their planners to identify what was likely to happen and have a plan in place to mitigate by shutting some key entrances or even stations and making other stations ‘exit only’ from 15 minutes before the final whistle.

    • Michael James

      N, 2018/07/18 – 12:05

      That said, it can’t have been beyond the wit of their planners to identify what was likely to happen and have a plan in place to mitigate by shutting some key entrances or even stations …

      As per my previous post, they did. And if you read the article, Alon wrote (my emphasis):

      ultimately going express from Palais-Royal to Argentine and skipping all the CBD stations, including Etoile.

      So that is seven M1 stations that span the Champs-Elysées and its outer edges: Palais-Royal, Tuileries, Concorde, Champs-Elysées-Clemenceau, Franklin D. Roosevelt, George V, and CDG-Etoile (ie. Arc-de-Triomphe). Are we aware of a single person being injured or hurt in this massive and sudden movement of people?
      FWIW, a significantly different feature of London is that so much of it is deep underground which creates more potential problems re access/egress in case of accidents or unrest etc. It makes them much more dependent on very long escalators whereas in Paris you are usually only a single flight of stairs (one storey) away from the surface (the exceptions are where multiple lines intersect and the very deep RER). Indeed this was part of the reason for the disaster (31 dead, 100 injured) in the 1987 King’s Cross fire which actually started on a wooden escalator (with decades of discarded rubbish trapped under it).

  6. Joey

    How well does passenger circulation in Paris stations hold up under normal commute loads?

    • Alon Levy

      As far as I’ve seen, pretty well. The one problem I’ve observed is that Les Halles has insufficient vertical circulation on the RER A and B platforms, so queues form at the escalators at rush hour, but the queues clear before the next train arrives so there’s no cascading failure. But also my experience is mainly with M1, which has a lot of turnover and multiple CBD stops; the most crowded line is M13, which has a tidal peak flow of passengers all getting on in the northern suburbs and the 16th and getting off at Saint-Lazare.

      • Michael James

        the most crowded line is M13, which has a tidal peak flow of passengers all getting on in the northern suburbs and the 16th and getting off at Saint-Lazare.

        That will be relieved fairly soon as the M14 extension into Saint-Ouen is completed. There is also a planned extension of M4 to St-Ouen Docks though may be just vaporware.
        I should confess that my very favourable view of the Paris Metro is partly because I never was obliged to use it for commuting at the worst times; when I used it for commuting it was counter-cyclical, out to the suburbs (M7 to Villejuif) so always got a seat.

  7. Si Hollett

    Given the Metro had signs made to change a few station names should they win (given they appeared on Monday, I can’t imagine they were done Sunday night), it’s really off that they didn’t have a crowd management plan. And even if they didn’t, surely staff can use some initiative – closing stations for entries, reversing escalators to aid egress, communicating with line control/drivers to not stop at certain stops as they are overcrowded.

    All this risk management and staff purpose happens in Central London pretty quickly – though perhaps because it is a regular occurance at certain stations, and so procedures have been written- Covent Garden and Camden Town even got on the tube map with notes about exit-only and all that (they aren’t commuter created issues) because their issues were so regular!

    • Michael James

      Si Hollett, 2018/07/19 – 14:22

      it’s really off that they didn’t have a crowd management plan. And even if they didn’t, surely staff can use some initiative – closing stations for entries, reversing escalators to aid egress, communicating with line control/drivers to not stop at certain stops as they are overcrowded.

      But they did, as Alon described: the same closures as on similar events such as the previous day’s 14 July. The central stretch of M1 on Champs-Elysees to as far as Concorde is usually closed. (And probably will be for the final stage of the Tour de France in another week or so.) As Alon explained on the western side of the Champs-Elysees (Argentine, about half a kilometre west of Arc de Triomphe) was the last one kept open. Just that the sheer size of crowds and most of all, suddenness of it, almost (but not quite) overwhelmed the system. The rush happened over an hour or two, whereas for all these other events it is spread over half a day or more.

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