Inauguration: How To Cram Everyone Into 2 Miles

The Square

The Minnick family squeezes into one square meter to demonstrate how close the people who attend the inauguration ceremony may have to stand. Brian Reed/ NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Brian Reed/ NPR

When President-elect Barack Obama is inaugurated on Jan. 20, the crowd may fill up the entire space between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial. Early estimates painted a picture of 4 million people in a two-mile-long rectangle.

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NOAH ADAMS, host:

Barack Obama's inauguration, January 20, will bring lots of people to Washington. Millions more are tempted to come. They're just not sure how things might work out when they get there.

ALEX COHEN, host:

You know, I - if I, let's say, got a ticket at the last minute, I think I might call you, Noah, because you live there. That's where you normally work. How would you feel if I called and said, hey, got some room on the couch for me and the hubby?

ADAMS: Yeah. Got a couch, got a floor. We could figure out how to get you downtown. The big question is where are you going to stand when you get there, and what are you going to see?

COHEN: Exactly. Because at one point, they were talking about four million people on the National Mall.

ADAMS: Four million. Nobody had any real data to back that up. Now the guess is back to two, maybe three million people. People will be welcome, though. I'm impressed by this - Jumbotron TV screens and sound systems. You can hear the sound and see things even if you're all the way back to the Lincoln Memorial. I went down there and tried to figure out how many people would fit on the Mall. And to help out, I had talked to a crowd estimating and counting expert.

Dr. FAROUK EL-BAZ (Research Professor and Director, Center for Remote Sensing, Boston University): A lot of people can be there. I actually walked through this Mall for 10 years when I was working for the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum. I was there for 10 years.

ADAMS: So that is Farouk El-Baz. He's now with Boston University. He runs the Remote Sensing Center there. A lot of experience in this sort of thing. It is two-and-a-half miles, Alex, from the steps of the Capitol back to the Lincoln Memorial. And if it all fills up, the big question is, how many people can fit?

COHEN: And what the weather might be like that day. I hear it's rather cold in your neck of the woods that time of year.

ADAMS: Yeah, it's 37 degrees, I've read, average for that day. And it depends also on who you're with, love the one you're with. It's not like a mosh pit at a rock concert, but it will be close. Professor El-Baz likes to plot this out using square meters.

Dr. EL-BAZ: This is when I assumed that you would have something like six people per square meter. This is the very close packing, and some people will be touching each other. Their arms will be right next to each other, which is OK.

ADAMS: (Laughing) He says it's OK. The professor - he made his crowd counting reputation by analyzing - remember the Million Man March back in 1995, controversial deal(ph)?

COHEN: Oh, yeah, anytime there's any kind of march or protest, there's always debate about how many people are actually there.

ADAMS: Yeah, he came in after the fact, looked at the photographs, and he said, 878,587.

COHEN: That's a very precise number.

ADAMS: Yeah, that's his number. He's sticking to it. He does say there was a margin of error of 20 percent.

COHEN: Now, let's get back to this idea of the inauguration, six people to a square meter.

ADAMS: I went to the Mall, as I said. I took along some orange tape. I put it out on the ground, and I made a square meter. And sure enough, here comes a family. I said, can you see if you can fit inside the square meter? So I laid out my tape. I laid out my proposition. They were so curious they had to go along. They couldn't resist.

Mr. MINNICK: All right, let's try it.

Ms. MINNICK: My hips are too big. How many...

Mr. MINNICK: OK.

Ms. MINNICK: What size people do you want?

Mr. MINNICK: Just six - that's what he said.

COHEN: Was this an average sized family? Were you able to fit them all in that square?

ADAMS: Well, yeah, almost. You can hear this.

Mr. MINNICK: All right, one, two...

Unidentified Child: Three, four, five...

Mr. MINNICK: Five, six.

Ms. MINNICK: Very cozy, very cozy.

ADAMS: This is the Minnick family from nearby in Virginia. Aspen(ph), Amber(ph), Jolen(ph), Madison(ph) and Todd(ph), plus a visiting grandmother Adel Lavson(ph). Alex, the size of the square meter, to envision this, is like a refrigerator - same space a refrigerator takes up - or maybe the size of a baby's playpen. Now, we took a picture of the family inside, and here it is. You can see it on the NPR Web site.

COHEN: Now, I'm looking at this picture here, and there's one slight problem. The Minnick family's in the square with the exception of the baby, there's no room. No inauguration for little tiny infant Minnick?

ADAMS: Well, the baby is in a stroller. Baby has to be outside the square. Well, anyway, maybe they could stick the baby inside. It depends on how long they have to stand there. The question really is, is the Minnick family coming to the inauguration? They got into a discussion about that.

Ms. MINNICK: I can't - I don't like crowds. I would not do it.

Mr. MINNICK: It would be...

Ms. MINNICK: I don't like crowds...

Mr. MINNICK: The positive thing is people will be warm...

Ms. MINNICK: No, I don't like crowds even for that...

Mr. MINNICK: It's an event that, it's going to be very historical.

COHEN: So you hear Mr. Minnick there saying it could be warm. Is that because they're all snuggled in so tight together?

ADAMS: Yes, squishy. They've got the big coats on, big winter coats, though. I think they will be watching on television. They'll be watching the two to three million people who have a real-life view of inauguration and that very real sense of being at that place at that moment.

COHEN: Thank you, Noah, for giving us that very real sense of what it's like to have six people inside a square meter. Now, I can see it.

ADAMS: You bet.

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