Introduction: Crowding is associated with poor patient outcomes in emergency departments (ED). Measures of crowding are often complex and resource-intensive to score and use in real-time. We evaluated single easily obtained variables to establish the presence of crowding compared to more complex crowding scores. Methods: Serial observations of patient flow were recorded in a tertiary Canadian ED. Single variables were evaluated including total number of patients in the ED (census), in beds, in the waiting room, in the treatment area waiting to be assessed, and total inpatient admissions. These were compared with Crowding scores (NEDOCS, EDWIN, ICMED, three regional hospital modifications of NEDOCS) as predictors of crowding. Predictive validity was compared to the reference standard of physician perception of crowding, using receiver operator curve analysis. Results: 144 of 169 potential events were recorded over 2 weeks. Crowding was present in 63.9% of the events. ED census (total number of patients in the ED) was strongly correlated with crowding (AUC = 0.82 with 95% CI = 0.76 - 0.89) and its performance was similar to that of NEDOCS (AUC = 0.80 with 95% CI = 0.76 - 0.90) and a more complex local modification of NEDOCS, the S-SAT (AUC = 0.83, 95% CI = 0.74 - 0.89). Conclusion: The single indicator, ED census was as predictive for the presence of crowding as more complex crowding scores. A two-stage approach to crowding intervention is proposed that first identifies crowding with a real-time ED census statistic followed by investigation of precipitating and modifiable factors. Real time signalling may permit more standardized and effective approaches to manage ED flow.