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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 66 · No. 5 > Behind the Scenes at the Olympics

March/April 2003
Vol. 66 · No. 5

Behind the Scenes at the Olympics

by Pamela Mathis

The Utah DOT shares the know-how that it gained from managing transportation for such a major event.

From February 8-24, 2002, Salt Lake City hosted the XIX Olympic Winter Games. With more than 75 events, 2,500 athletes, 750,000 visitors, and 11,500 representatives of the media, the winter games were the largest in history—in the number of events, participants, and attendance. The XIX Olympic Winter Games were also the largest event ever in the history of Utah, a State with 2.2 million people. The massive influx of visitors, combined with the added pressure from international scrutiny, placed unparalleled demands on the region's transportation system.

Spectator vehicle traffic making their way to mountain venues
More than 196,000 spectators made their way to mountain venues like Park City to attend the Olympic competitions and festivities.
Traffic on major travel route around the Olympic site
Cooperation with the trucking industry led to a significant drop in interstate truck traffic during the Olympics, minimizing congestion on major travel routes.

Proudly, the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT)—in concert with a multitude of local, State, and Federal agencies—rose to the occasion. The public was provided with a highly efficient, safe, and effective transportation system throughout all 17 Olympic days. Indeed, transportation for the 2002 Winter Games received universal acclaim, with many observers crediting Utah with providing the best transportation of any Olympic Games.

"The Salt Lake City games proved to the country and to the rest of the world that Utah can competently host a world-class event," says Andrew Gemperline, director of Olympic Transportation Planning for UDOT and the Salt Lake Organizing Committee (SLOC). "Thanks to the remarkable dedication and cooperation of UDOT and all coordinating agencies, the Olympic transportation system was seamless."

The secrets behind this success and the lessons that can be learned from the experience can benefit the planning and implementation of transportation systems at future major events around the world—including football games, concerts, and major holiday events—as well as the day-to-day operations of local transportation agencies.

The Olympic Challenge

"With the world watching, we strived to achieve a transportation system that was invisible to everyone," says UDOT Executive Director John Njord. "We needed to create a system that enabled people to move around in an efficient manner, without drawing attention to ourselves."

But this was not easy. Under the area's pre-Olympic transportation system, traffic planners projected congestion during the early-morning peak on the major corridors of cities such as Salt Lake, Provo, and Ogden to the skiing, slalom, bobsleigh, and snowboarding venues in the mountains east of Salt Lake City. In these areas, it was also predicted that continuous congestion was likely from the early afternoon to late evening. Downtown Salt Lake City was expected to have delays from mid-day until late in the evening, and normal commuter traffic to the city and traffic from spectators traveling to events were expected to coincide to create significant congestion. Under inclement winter weather, the prognosis was significantly worse.

According to UDOT's Travel Demand Management program, the department needed to accomplish several daunting tasks to achieve its goals. To handle the anticipated increase in traffic during the Olympics, UDOT needed to reduce freeway delays by 20 percent, reduce incident removal time by 20 percent, reduce signal stops by 20 percent, and increase speeds during peak hours by 15 percent.

These sizable changes could be achieved only by getting the public onboard and improving road access to Olympic venues—particularly those in remote areas like Snowbasin Ski Resort, which was accessible only by a two-lane winding mountain highway.

Turning Vision into Reality

With farsighted vision and unrelenting teamwork, UDOT worked in concert with the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), the Utah Transit Authority (UTA), SLOC, the State of Utah, the Utah Olympic Public Safety Command (UOPSC), Salt Lake City, and other venue communities.

To persuade the public to change its travel behaviors, UDOT and its partners implemented a four-part plan: dissemination of travel information to commuters, spectators, commercial drivers, and residents; outreach to long-haul trucking; expansion of public transportation; and outreach to local businesses and employees (see "UDOT'S Campaign to Change Travel Behaviors").

To improve traffic movement, extensive construction, reconstruction, and improvement projects began nearly 5 years in advance of the Olympics. UDOT built one interchange and two new roads, reconstructed two interchanges, and improved eight sections of highway. A new state-of-the-art Traffic Operations Center (TOC) and extensive use of high-tech and intelligent transportation systems (ITS) equipment also were part of the Olympic transportation plan.

The result? Transportation goals were not only met, they were exceeded. Substantially.

"We had better travel ability in the area during the Olympics than we normally ever have," says Gemperline.

Traffic in downtown Salt Lake City dropped 30 to 40 percent from background flows, while traffic in other hotspots, such as West Valley and Davis County, decreased by 20 to 30 percent during peak travel times. Furthermore, thanks to the success of the Know Before You Go campaign, travelers alternated work schedules to produce a 1- to 2-hour shift in peak rush hours.

Map of Salt Lake City and nearby mountain showing Olympic event sites and major traffic routes
This map of Salt Lake City and nearby mountains shows the sites for the Olympic events and major traffic routes.

Interagency Cooperation

"While there were many factors that contributed to our success," says Njord, "the single most important one was that all agencies at all levels were working on the same page. Both within and across agencies, everyone was sharply focused on a common mission."

UDOT built working relationships with other public agencies before the Olympics began. Individuals from the different organizations came to understand each other's responsibilities, which enabled problems that arose during the Olympics to be solved quickly and in a coordinated way.

To maintain close interagency ties, representatives of UDOT, Public Safety, UTA, SLOC, Salt Lake City, and FHWA were located at the joint command center, so that multidisciplinary teams of experts could deal with issues as soon as they arose.

For enhancing interagency cooperation in general, UDOT recommends that working relationships be fostered every day. One way to achieve this is for personnel to attend staff meetings of other agencies on a periodic basis. Issues discussed should include common operational problems, coordination of upcoming events, development of contacts, and establishment of working groups.

Variable message sign over roadway - E Center Use SR-201 to Redwood Rd
UDOT's Intelligent Transportation System, CommuterLink, played a vital role in directing spectators and visitors to Olympic events. More than 60 overhead Variable Message Signs like this one directed spectators to established routes for Olympic venues and park-and-ride lots.

Public Relations

"Getting people to change their travel habits was one of the most important keys to UDOT's overall success," says Gemperline. "As a result of the Know Before You Go campaign, the local citizenry actually listened to UDOT... for the full 17 days."

The Know Before You Go campaign provided timely, accurate

information on expected traffic conditions, travel times, areas of congestion, and alternative modes of transportation. More than 57 million hits were registered on the Web site in the first 2 weeks alone.

The creation of an effective traffic demand management (TDM) program, developed by consideration of lessons learned from other Olympics around the world, was critical in identifying and projecting the traffic-related information that travelers needed and wanted to know. Without a TDM program, the Know Before You Go campaign could not have achieved the level of success that it did.

In addition to a TDM program, UDOT recommends that maintenance, construction, and operations develop event plans in concert with community relations, to address expected traffic conditions, travel times, areas of congestion, and alternative modes of transportation.

UDOT's Campaign to Change Travel Behaviors

Trax Light Rail train
Nearly 700,000 people made 2.5 million trips into the downtown area via TRAX Light Rail or the Olympic shuttles.

UDOT and its partners implemented an extensive four-part outreach plan to educate travelers during the Olympics:

  1. Dissemination of traveler information. The Know Before You Go campaign included distribution of a 36-page Olympic Transportation Guide; an ITS Web site with real-time information on travel routes; a toll-free information hotline providing up-to-date traffic, road, transit, Olympic event, and weather conditions; and a radio station, with traffic and weather updates every 10 minutes.
  2. Outreach to long-haul trucking. UDOT distributed four fliers to national long-haul trucking companies and individual truckers at all ports of entry, and made presentations to local trucking companies about when and where events would be held and what routes would be affected. During the Games, UDOT e-mailed transportation news releases to trucking companies and the Utah Truckers Association so that they could get the word out via citizens band radio and through their electronic distribution list. UDOT also placed portable VMS boards at ports of entry to notify truckers of important, up-to-the-minute traffic information.
  3. Public transportation. UDOT extended the hours of operation and capacity of buses and TRAX (not an acronym) light rail, and established six temporary park-and-ride and park-and-walk lots, all of which were revegetated and restored to their natural condition after the Olympics.
  4. Education of businesses and employees. UDOT implemented a business game plan, notifying companies of how they could help minimize traffic during peak hours through telecommuting, carpooling, flexible work schedules, and alternative delivery schedules. In addition, UDOT visited more than 200 businesses prior to the Olympics, giving presentations to enable each firm to tailor-make its own transportation plan.

Operational Tools

A service patrol and Incident Management Teams (IMT) proved key to providing safe, efficient operations. During the Olympics, UDOT increased its IMT crews from 13 to 23, and IMT volunteers from Illinois, Tennessee, and Washington helped out. UDOT also added 40 service patrol personnel, consisting of UDOT staff reassigned from their normal duties.

Over the 17-day period, nearly 1,900 assists were made to stalled or out-of-gas vehicles. The prompt removal of traffic impediments also prevented secondary accidents—of which none were recorded during the Olympics. UDOT emphasizes the need to dedicate resources to employ service patrols and IMTs during events, including dedicated, equipped vehicles and a trained staff.

Contingency plans for crashes, congestion, weather, security, and parking lots were crucial and focused on potential trouble spots, including traffic corridors, specific event locations, airports, and cities. Planning included alternative routing and advanced traffic management systems. Based on UDOT's experience, contingency plans also should be developed for normal operations, facilitating quick response to a variety of scenarios at different locations, with alternative routing, communication protocol, and implementation clearly spelled out.

A traffic observers program was integral to the effective functioning of the Salt Lake City transportation system. Specifically, UDOT stationed approximately 40 traffic engineers with hand-held radios at potential trouble spots, extremely important in areas with limited or no camera coverage. UDOT believes that this program should be implemented for inclement weather under normal operations as well as large events.

Traffic control was used extensively and effectively during the Olympics to close roads, create detours, channel traffic, and manage pedestrians. UDOT believes that traffic control programs are extremely effective for large events and should be continued.

All operational tools used during the Olympics—including those already discussed and others such as aggressive signal timing and park-and-ride shuttles—could be used to improve day-to-day operations. UDOT recommends that the public be polled about the level of service they expect from their State DOT to determine which programs should be expanded, developed, or abolished. This feedback will enable the DOT to maximize benefits using limited resources.

Incident Management Team on side of road, assisting motorist
During the Olympics, UDOT added more Incident Management Teams, and IMT crews from other States sent additional volunteers to help. Nearly 1,900 motorists received roadside assistance from UDOT's service patrol.

Equipment

Various types of equipment facilitated internal and external communications. Of greatest benefit were closed-circuit television (CCTV) devices, preprogrammed variable message signs (VMS), highway advisory radio (HAR) messages, and pager text messages.

During the Olympics, UDOT made use of approximately 220 already-operational CCTVs, which provided instant verification of traffic and environmental conditions and incidents to permit almost-immediate responses to changing road and parking lot conditions. Where CCTV coverage was limited or nonexistent, UDOT generally was slower in resolving problems. UDOT learned the importance of expanding camera coverage to include both urban and rural sections of the State.

The TOC and public relations developed a set of preprogrammed VMS messages for each hour of each day to communicate with the public through 60 signs at various locations. The messages notified the public of incidents, parking restrictions, and Olympic events. The TOC also employed HAR messages to relay important messages to travelers. Even today, these preprogrammed messages continue to be put to good use.

Buses lined up
Transit agencies from 26 different States volunteered 680 buses and drivers to shuttle spectators back and forth to Olympic venues.

The command center used text messages to page more than 300 individuals from all agencies about updates on canceled events, traffic and weather conditions, suggested alternate travel routes, and the like. UDOT recommends that this type of service continue to be offered to other agencies during normal operations. To maximize benefits associated with text messaging during normal operations, UDOT suggests that periodic visits to other agencies should be instituted to inform them of the advantages of this system, and surveys should be conducted to improve it.

In addition, traffic-related text messages dispatched by the TOC were accessible to anyone with a pager, including all spectator and athlete shuttle bus drivers, delivery trucks, and other service providers, which proved to be highly valuable. This service continues to be offered during UDOT's normal operations. To improve the pager system during routine operations, however, UDOT recommends that customer comments, questions, concerns, and suggestions be solicited.

Cars being directed to parking in parking lot
More than 1.2 million spectators took advantage of fix enormous park-and-ride and park-and-walk lots that UDOT constructed near competition venues.

Given the success and usefulness of the technologies employed during the Olympics, and the fact that State DOTs do not have the financial resources to provide Olympic-level service year-round, departments need to identify, prioritize, and implement those improvements that provide the biggest bang for the buck.

Training

In Utah, three all-day training events took place 1 month prior to the Olympics. Staff members assumed their roles and positions in the field or at the various regional offices. UDOT believes strongly that event planning should incorporate this kind of simulation with staff members practicing for expected and unexpected situations, with operational contingencies incorporated into the training.

"We prepared for so many scenarios that our people were well-trained on how to make decisions," says Gemperline. He estimates that about 3 percent of the more than 1,000 contingency plans that staff had trained for actually occurred during the Olympics.

Motor coaches lined up for shuttle spectators
Private companies pitched in another 420 motor coaches to ensure that Olympic spectators arrived at mountain venues, such as Snowbasin, on time.

Teams were authorized to make decisions in the field to solve issues that were not (and could not have been) addressed by contingency plans. Having the flexibility to "invent" new solutions empowered staff.

Finally, UDOT held daily debriefing meetings for the multidisciplinary teams at each of the 11 event sites. For large events and also for normal operations during snowstorms and reoccurring traffic congestion, UDOT suggests that lessons learned be discussed, collected, documented, and presented at each interested transportation organization.

Taking the Message Home

The success of UDOT's transportation operations demonstrated what is possible—not only in Salt Lake City, but also across the country. Ultimately, what it takes is a common vision, fierce dedication, and perseverance. But the payoffs make it worthwhile.

Purple way-finding sign on right side of roadway, mountain in the background
UDOT installed more than 250 purple way-finding signs along interstates and surface streets leading to Olympic venues. Here, motorists on U.S. Highway 40 are directed to Soldier Hollow, the site of cross-country ski events.

"As difficult, arduous, and stressful as the Olympics were for all transportation workers involved," says Njord, "everyone looks back on the experience as one of the proudest of their careers—without exception."

Applying UDOT's lessons learned to improve special and routine transportation operations at home can provide benefits to transportation staff and commuters alike. All that is needed is the dream and the drive.


Pamela Mathis is a contract writer for FHWA and a contributing editor for Public Roads magazine.

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