Los Angeles

Long Read: Looking to Atlanta

Photo Credit: HKS Sports and Entertainment

Photo Credit: HKS Sports and Entertainment

Mark your calendars!  On February 6, 2022 the Super Bowl LVI kicks off from Los Angeles Stadium at Hollywood Park. LA has the weather, a sparkling new stadium and a revitalized Inglewood. What is the only thing that could ruin the experience?  Navigating our sprawling landscape.  

Most football fans probably think of the Super Bowl as a three-hour game, but for the host city the Super Bowl means two weeks of activities.  When the Super Bowl comes to LA, "There's going to be events going on all over town," said Kathy Schloesman, president of the Los Angeles Sports and Entertainment Commission. "We have so much to offer and we're so spread out."  Kevin Demoff, chief operating officer of the LA Rams, echoed that sentiment. "You want the entire city to have Super Bowl fever, and I think that's what the design reflects."  

Current plans include the NFL Experience, an "interactive theme park" hosted at the Convention Center, Super Bowl LIVE, an outdoor festival with food and music, at Exposition Park; media events at the Intercontinental Hotel in downtown; and tons of other attractions in Venice, Inglewood and Universal Studios Hollywood.  

However, moving thousands of people amongst and between these various events will be no small feat.  And as a city we want visitors' time here to be enjoyable, which for the transportation system means safe, reliable, comfortable service. To quote Demoff, "Your goal is always that the event reflects well on the entire city, the citizens, the transportation hubs and the stadium.  It's a complete effort.  From the moment you land at the airport as a guest, to the moment you get back on the plane, did you enjoy the Super Bowl city experience?"

If all proceeds as planned, visitors will arrive at a newly renovated LAX, with access to an expanded and improved mass transit system, integrating bus, rail, bikes and cars, for a seamless transit experience.  And accommodating the Super Bowl influx will give policy makers a window into what to expect when the both the World Cup and Olympics come to town in the coming years.

The stress this influx will put on the City's already congested and overburdened streets and roads cannot be overstated.  Los Angeles, and Metro specifically, has a huge task ahead.  But I think Atlanta can help.

Atlanta hosted the 2019 Super Bowl and by all accounts it was a huge success.  MARTA, Atlanta's public transit system, was specifically acknowledged for its ability to move hundreds of thousands of fans safely and efficiently.  This achievement is remarkable because only a year earlier MARTA got a very public black eye for its mishandling of rail operations following the college football national championship game. How did Atlanta and MARTA adapt and evolve? And what can LA, and LA Metro, learn from Atlanta's experiences?

The Five Points rail station in Atlanta is MARTA's largest station, serving as the main transfer point between the north-south lines and the east-west lines.  On January 8, 2018 following the national college championship game at Mercedes-Benz stadium, fans poured into the station. Because of "passenger overfill and crowded platforms," rail doors wouldn't close so trains couldn't move. Hundreds of passengers were waiting for trains that weren't going anywhere. People began calling 9-1-1 from inside the station because they were unable to locate MARTA personnel or security. While no one was seriously hurt, MARTA vowed to improve for the Super Bowl.

What happened? MARTA dramatically underestimated the number of fans who would choose public transportation to and from the college game.  MARTA had anticipated an additional 15,000 riders but more than 22,000 used the rail lines.  Several key operational blunders also contributed to the congestion. There was limited communication between the stations, and MARTA failed to prevent riders from boarding trains bound for Five Points even though it was filled to capacity.  Then there weren't enough MARTA employees to handle the crowd.  Inaccurate estimates and inadequate staffing created a nightmare situation.

Fast forward a year. 

On February 3, 2019 Atlanta hosted the Super Bowl at the same Mercedes-Benz stadium. And that day MARTA got everything right. MARTA moved more than half a million customers during the three-day Super Bowl weekend, largely without incident. As The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported, "you could almost hear metro Atlanta breathe a collective sigh of relief."

So how did they do it?  

MARTA spent two years and budgeted an additional $2 million preparing for the Super Bowl and the investment paid off.  Appropriate staffing was a priority.  MARTA ensured adequate personnel were allocated to service the station.  In addition, MARTA employed "transit ambassadors" to assist customers as they made their way to the game.On Super Bowl Sunday riders were greeted by more than 600 Transit Ambassadors, positioned throughout MARTA’s 38 rail stations.  

To accommodate the swell in ridership, MARTA ran 24-hour rail service. Mechanics were staged in the field at key spots to respond quickly to problems should they arise. Prior to game day, MARTA conducted a full-scale exercise to test their ability to respond to a terror attack on the transit system.  On Super Bowl Sunday MARTA police officers were highly visible throughout the system. More than 500 sworn officers, along with those assisting from other agencies, worked around the clock to ensure there were no public safety issues. 

So as Los Angeles prepares for its turn in the national sports spot light, the amount of planning and event preparation needed cannot be understated. The transportation experience may well be the key indicator on how well Los Angeles handles the demands of the Superbowl and will be equipped for the events that follow.

by Julie Quinn