Optimizing the Visitor Experience with Pedestrian Flow Analysis

Dan Clunis, AIA, LEED Green Associate, Fitwel Amb.
Dan Clunis
AIA, LEED GA, Fitwel Amb.
July 9, 2024
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By analyzing and improving pedestrian flow, we can address issues of congestion, bottlenecks, accessibility, and security in public facilities.


Design computation allows us to move beyond traditional methods and embrace data-driven insights that can give us a deeper understanding of buildings and landscapes. Simulating visitor flow is a prime example. Visitor flow, also called pedestrian flow, is an important aspect of audience management for museums and other cultural sites that accommodate large numbers of visitors. Visitor flow analysis helps us design places that support safety, comfort, and enjoyment for all.

An interior photo of a visitor center with people looking at displays.
Visitor flow analysis helped us optimize the layout of Heritage Hall, a visitor center and assembly space at the Michigan State Capitol that welcomes more than 100,000 people every year.

What is visitor flow?

Visitor flow is the term used to describe how people move through a space, whether it’s a library or a park. By analyzing and improving pedestrian flow, we can enhance the visitor experience and functionality of a place, solving issues like congestion, bottlenecks, queuing, accessibility, security, and social distancing.

My colleague Beth Barrett, AIA, AANB, explains it this way: "The fundamental principle in designing for visitor flow is understanding the users first. Rather than forcing people to adapt to a space, the focus is on tailoring the environment to meet the diverse needs of visitors."

How does visitor flow analysis software work?

At Quinn Evans, we use Pedestrian Dynamics software, a virtual laboratory that enables us to model and test various visitor flow scenarios. By feeding the software detailed data about layout, visitor types, and expected visitor patterns, we gain a richer understanding of how people will interact with the space. We can then use the data to inform design, test out alternative options, and collaborate with clients. The specific issues we address can be as granular as where to put a coat check for an event or as broad as mapping an optimal path through a cultural landscape.

We start by creating a digital environment, which can range from a sophisticated 3D models to a simple schematic outline. We then populate this virtual space with simulated visitors, assigning them profiles that account for various demographic factors such as age ranges, typical walking speeds, and even stroller usage for families. Next, we determine where these simulated visitors want to go, how long they want to stay in particular spots, and what they want to do in the space. This means layering in user goals to simulate, for example, the number of visitors who go directly from purchasing a ticket to visiting the restroom or how likely visitors are to disperse versus following a predetermined path.

A rendering of an interior space populated with figures.
A detailed 3D crowd simulation for Heritage Hall.

For existing buildings, we can rely on established visitor data combined with insights from our clients to make well-informed assumptions about these characteristics. For new designs, we extrapolate from previous experience.

Pedestrian flow simulation software allows us to tailor the level of detail. Some models focus on overall crowd movement and density, while others can simulate the behavior patterns of individuals. Like zooming in and out on a map, we can strategically select the most appropriate level of detail based on the available data and the specific design questions we're trying to answer.

Once we've dialed in all the variables, we run simulations based on algorithms that mimic natural pedestrian flow, considering factors like obstacles, crowd density, distance, attraction, repulsion, and decision-making. The software can generate different outputs, including heat maps, charts, graphs, videos, and statistics, providing valuable insight into how our actual visitors will likely interact with the space and allowing for data-driven decision-making to avoid or mitigate problem areas.

How do we use pedestrian flow software to improve existing places?

While pedestrian flow software can be applied to new buildings, we’re exploring key uses that will help us preserve, optimize, and leverage the value of existing places. As a problem-solving tool, pedestrian flow software helps us address specific challenges or questions that clients have about existing and historic buildings.


A client might want to optimize the layout of a historic building to minimize congestion for daily use and special events and improve the visitor experience while maintaining the space’s authenticity. Pedestrian simulations can help identify solutions to bottlenecks, uncomfortable circulation patterns, and capacity problems that often arise when a historic building takes on a new purpose.


How can we integrate modern amenities (such as restrooms, cafes, or gift shops) into historic spaces without compromising their character? Simulations can guide decisions on where to place these facilities.


Preservationists may ask about the impact of foot traffic on delicate flooring, artifacts, or fragile materials. Simulations can help assess wear and tear over time and suggest options that lessen the impact on the historic fabric.

Visitor flow analysis can be performed for a site's overall use or specific events. For instance, when the State of the State Address was due to take place in the Michigan State Capitol's Heritage Hall, we worked with Capitol staff to organize the space for the event. Using pedestrian flow analysis, we compared different locations for the coat check, sign-in tables, and food stations to reduce bottlenecks and congestion. We also showed how visitors might move around the space during the event, highlighting where the team could place additional staff for short periods and how long it would take for attendees to evacuate in the case of an emergency.

A diagram showing a heat map of crowd density laid over a building plan.
Visitor flow analysis helped us avoid potential bottlenecks at Michigan’s State of the State Address.

Pedestrian flow analysis can ease the minds of clients who worry about a possible issue. We used pedestrian flow software in our work with Cape Hatteras National Seashore to design a visitor center site plan that maximizes visitor flow and comfort. We ran simulations to show that an existing sidewalk width was sufficient to handle the expected number and type of visitors, even with potential Instagram moments that could slow down the traffic, or in the event emergency vehicles needed to use the sidewalk during peak times. Our analysis showed that widening the sidewalk would not improve visitor flow or experience.

A heat map of crowd density laid over a site plan.
Demonstrating the impact of proposed sidewalk changes at Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

Data-driven design

In the early design stages, pedestrian flow analysis allows us to create user-centric spaces informed by data. We can test and refine design concepts to understand how people will interact with and move through space.

A fundamental aspect of designing for museums and other public spaces is understanding human behavior. Upon entering a new space, visitors naturally pause to reorient themselves to a new environment. Providing transitional spaces for these pauses allows visitors to acclimate to their surroundings. This approach, rooted in thoughtful architectural design, prevents feelings of rush or crowding and fosters a comfortable and enjoyable experience.

Data-driven insights supplement our intuition and experience to help us deliver improved functionality, efficiency, and enhanced visitor experiences, and objectively compare different options at an early stage.

Improved communication

Pedestrian flow software allows us to communicate and compare design options by creating easily understandable visuals for clients and other stakeholders. For example, we used pedestrian flow simulation data to convince an authority to grant an exception to a local zoning ordinance.

We’re currently working with the DC Public Library system to modernize the Southeast Library. We ran simulations to test different design options for the entrance, lobby, and circulation spaces and discovered that the best solution for easing lobby congestion would be to push the entry vestibule out beyond the building line, going against a local zoning ordinance. Because we were able show data and visuals demonstrating that the exterior vestibule would greatly enhance visitor flow and experience, the project was granted an exception to the zoning ordinance.

Heat maps of crowd density laid over a building plan in six scenarios.
Circulation and congestion heat maps for the Southeast Library facilitated a local zoning ordinance exemption.

Limitations of pedestrian flow software

While crowd simulation software offers us so many benefits, it's not without its challenges. For instance:


The software thrives on accurate data about the space and its users. Architects need not only reliable information but also technical skills to operate and interpret the software's output.


Algorithms and models are powerful tools, but they can't fully capture the nuances of human behavior. This is especially true for outdoor spaces; the software might interpret the edge of a path as an impenetrable barrier, but a real-life visitor simply veers off to take a shortcut across a lawn. Outdoors, people have more freedom to make choices on the fly, making simulations less deterministic.


Historic sites have additional challenges. Maintaining the character-defining aspects of these places while ensuring accessibility and comfort requires creative solutions that improve visitor flow without compromising the site's integrity.

However, these challenges don't diminish the value of the software. Real-world data and an architect's expertise can bridge these gaps. Pedestrian flow analysis remains a powerful tool for optimizing visitor flow, even if some unpredictability persists.


Integrating pedestrian flow simulations is just one way we use design computation to provide data-driven insights and value to our clients and communities. Leveraging technology helps us understand existing places more deeply and create vibrant, functional spaces that cater to modern needs while respecting the legacy of the past.

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