The ABCs of Transportation Planning for Special Events

The winter and summer Olympics, the annual National Football League (NFL) Super Bowl championship, and similar sports events are just a few of the numerous “special events” that continue to grab a nation’s – and at times, the world’s – attention. These same events – and others, such as the upcoming 2013 U.S. Presidential Inauguration – also draw huge numbers of participants and spectators to venues around the globe.

A prime example is the recent surge to first place in their division by the Washington Nationals baseball team – a drive that has significantly increased attendance at games. According to a 2012 summary posted at the Major League Baseball (MLB) website, only 10 games held at the Nationals Park during the previous four years (2008 through 2011) drew crowds of 40,000 or more. This year, that number has already been surpassed – and average attendance, during the first half of the season alone, was close to 30,000. One previously unforeseeable result of the team’s on-the-field successes this year is that the Nationals’ stadium is now being considered as a potential site for the 2015 All Star game.

However, increased attendance also leads to additional requirements, including a greater need: (a) to manage and facilitate the transportation of fans to and from the games; and (b) to protect the players as well as the fans – which in Washington, D.C., often include some high-ranking government officials – from terrorist attacks and/or other dangers.

Although three years away, the 2015 All-Star Game is not as far into the future as it may seem. In fact, if D.C. is selected to host the game, there must be enough time to ensure that the right team of planners and “doers” – e.g., professionals in public safety, emergency management, health, transportation, and other fields – attend one or both of the 2013 and 2014 All-Star games to experience firsthand the plans and preparations that work and those that do not work.

One of the more important areas of concern will be the transportation available for what would undoubtedly be a sellout crowd. Among the critical considerations for everyone involved – from event planners and security personnel to the players to those attending the game – are the following:

  1. How best to ensure that the official baseball “family” – players, team officials and owners, media, and sponsors – as well as the fans will be able to travel to and from the stadium both swiftly and safely;
  2. When these groups should leave for the stadium;
  3. Whether they should use public transportation or drive; and
  4. What other Washingtonians – non-participants who live or work in or around the area close to the stadium – and visitors to the nation’s capital should do on the game-day itself to avoid excess delays in their plans. (Many in this category might telework, of course, but others would simply leave earlier for work – or just decide to take the day off.)

In addition, if the Nationals end up in the 2012 World Series, the same planners, safety personnel, and other officials must be able to provide security during this multi-day event. The experience of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) of the U.S. Department of Transportation strongly suggests that the most important safety and security factors needed to help ensure the operational success of a major event are to: (a) be able to manage transportation to and from the event; (b) determine the effects of the event on congestion; and (c) define the role the event plays in the local economy.

Statistical Evidence for Transportation’s Criticality 

The FHWA has also produced a number of publications designed to summarize the best practices recommended for several of the more complicated aspects of planned special events. For example, the information included in the agency’s August 2008 report, titled “Planned Special Events – Economic Role and Congestion Effects,” shows clearly why the experience and expertise provided by transportation professionals in both the planning and operation of activities are critical to the overall success of the event. That particular report included statistics from five major types of crowds: (a) professional team sports; (b) college and high school sports; (c) individual professional sports; (d) concerts, expositions, and other “entertainment” shows; and (e) various “street and park” events.

Using a large volume of data (covering the years 1993 through 2008) – collected from secondary sources, event organizers and venue managers, various responder agencies, and officials at all levels of government – the FHWA calculated the U.S. annual estimates of planned special events with more than 10,000 attendees. Their results include the following statistics:

  • More than 24,000 Planned Special Events (most of them sports events of some type) are scheduled annually throughout the nation;
  • Those events attract an estimated 600 million attendees;
  • The collective “in-event” revenue of those same events is estimated to be about $40 billion – and what is termed the “total economic impact” is four times higher at about $160 billion;
  • The local, state, and federal government revenues generated by these events is an estimated $4 billion, but the collective “congestion costs” range from $1.7 billion to $3.5 billion (based on Average Delay Per Traveler + Wasted Fuel Per Traveler + Travel Delay + Excessive Fuel Consumed);
  • The “Travel Delay” factor (i.e., the total travel time above that needed when compared to a trip at free-flow speed), which ranges from 93 million to 187 million hours, affects both attendees and non-attendees; and
  • The excess fuel consumption (i.e., the amount consumed for trips when compared to free-flow conditions) also doubles – from 64 million gallons to 128 million gallons.

That report and other FHWA publications on planned special events are available electronically at their website and a host of other documents, produced prior to 2011, are available on CD, including:

  • Intelligent Transportation Systems for Planned Special Events: A Cross-Cutting Study
  • Managing Travel for Planned Special Events Handbook
  • Managing Travel for Planned Special Events Handbook: Executive Summary
  • National Special Security Events: Transportation Planning for Planned Special Events
  • Planned Special Events – Economic Role and Congestion Effects
  • Planned Special Events: Cost Management and Cost Recovery
  • Simplified Guide to the Incident Command System for Transportation Professionals
  • Tabletop Exercise Instructions for Planned Events and Unplanned Incidents/Emergencies

The FHWA also has developed a Planned Special Events peer-to-peer program designed specifically to help those responsible for event planning. Within the past 12 months, two peer-to-peer sessions were held. In the first, two officials (who had managed the September 2009 G-20 meeting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) went to Honolulu in July 2011 to help planners prepare for the November 2011 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Hawaii. In the second, the director of the Minnesota Transportation Management Center and a St. Paul police officer went to Tampa, Florida, in April 2012 to help planners in that city prepare for the 2012 Republican National Convention (RNC) – which St. Paul had hosted in 2008.

In short: (a) When traffic to and from an event goes well, public safety and security concerns are significantly reduced and the overall experience of participants is greatly improved; (b) The FHWA publications provide an abundance of “best practices” information to help special event planners and emergency planners handle crowd surges more safely and effectively; and (c) The transportation problems that might develop at such gatherings are often remembered long after the event has passed.


For additional information on: Links to the FHWA publications on planned special events, visit

The 25 June 2012 article “Attendance surges during Interleague Play: Major League Baseball has chance at setting new overall record,” visit

The 2010 FHWA report “National Special Security Events: Transportation Planning for Planned Special Events,” visit

Laurel J. Radow

Laurel J. Radow is an American Astronomical Society Solar Eclipse Task Force (AAS SETF) member and co-chair of the AAS Local Planning Working Group. She joined the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), U.S. Department of Transportation in 1996. From 2004 until her retirement at the end of 2016, she served as a member of the FHWA Office of Operation’s Traffic Incident and Events Management Team. In that capacity, she served as program manager for the agency’s Evacuations/Emergencies and Planned Special Events programs and managed a range of Traffic Incident Management tasks. From 2014-2016, she served as vice chair of the National Academy of Sciences Transportation Research Board’s (TRB) Standing Committee on Critical Transportation Infrastructure Protection (AMR10). She recently completed her second and final term as chair of the same committee. In addition to co-chairing the TRB at the October 2018 Resiliency Conference (T-RISE), she also served as guest managing editor for the TR News September/October 2021 Issue no. 335, “State of Emergency: What Transportation Learned from 9/11.”



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