From Transit to Tipoff: Solving the Transportation Challenges of Large Venues

Bay Area Parking

Photo by Sergio Ruiz

Large venues like convention centers, stadiums and sports arenas play an important role in the social and economic life of our cities. As public space, they bring people together to be inspired, celebrate victory (or commiserate loss) and share passions.  At the same time, they are a critical economic driver, contributing to a city’s tax base and bolstering the sales of nearby businesses. Many cities' identity is closely tied to their sports team; with people traveling from all over to experience a game in their arena. While these venues, particularly sports arenas, play an important role in urban communities, they have historically been built in areas cut off from the rest of the surrounding neighborhood. Excluding stadiums like Wrigley Field in Chicago or Fenway Park in Boston, many sports arenas have been built at the edges of the city and rely on patrons driving in and parking. However, over the last decade or so there has been a shift in thinking for how these centers can be better integrated into the community and designed as mixed-use destinations that focus on placemaking and people, regardless if you have a ticket to the event or game. 

The transition of stadiums into mixed-use urban entertainment centers has not come without challenges. For example, property owners need to understand the value proposition of visitors frequenting the businesses and spaces around the stadium, and by extension, to understand that the vibrancy and connectivity of the surrounding area is just as important as the experience inside the stadium. It also requires property managers, planners and city policymakers to rethink how people travel to and access these large venues. 

Locally, this discussion is playing out in downtown San José’s SAP Center, a large entertainment and sports venue that attracts visitors from all over the Bay Area. Downtown San José is slated for massive redevelopment over the next two decades, in part from the proposed Downtown West development by Google as well as at Diridon Station, San José’s multi-modal transportation hub. The vision for the future of this area is one filled with ground floor activity, world class public spaces, job opportunities and mixed-income housing. Importantly, the vision also includes significant transportation mode shift goals to reduce single occupancy vehicles and promote biking, walking and rail and bus services at Diridon Station. However, today’s visitors mostly drive alone to downtown San José and particularly to the SAP Center.  As San Jose works to build a more sustainable and vibrant downtown then how might we shift behavior around how people come to and enjoy events at the SAP Center? 

Recognizing that this dynamic has unfolded in many cities across the country in the last few years, SPUR organized a public forum to learn from three cities who have embraced a new model of stadium design and created transportation programs to help visitors access large venues and attend events and games with ease and convenience. We heard from both city staff and venue managers in Sacramento, San Francisco and Seattle: 

Matt Eierman / City of Sacramento Parking Services Division (Golden Center 1)

Manoj Madhavan / Chase Center, San Francisco, California  

Rob Johnson / Seattle Krakens, Seattle, Washington 

Here’s what we learned: 

Messaging Can Encourage Different Transportation Choices

For Seattle, Sacramento and San Francisco the importance of communications and messaging has been a core part of the success in making visitors comfortable with leaving their car behind and opting for public transportation. In order for people to choose to walk or ride a bus or train they need timely and accurate information on how these choices might impact their arrival time or experience getting to a game or event. This can come in the form of email blasts, social media posts or even creating data platforms that share cost information on parking. Based on fan feedback at the Chase Center in San Francisco, they used the back of their tickets to communicate details on accessing public transportation and how to use the ticket for a free  Muni ride to and from the game. Finding clever ways to connect with visitors to share information is a key ingredient in getting people comfortable with public transportation. The Sacramento parking information platform, SacPark, uses pricing as a method for making different transportation choices. The platform shows the cost and availability of parking near the stadium, giving visitors the opportunity to either pay a higher rate to park close to the stadium or elect to park further away from the stadium for cheaper, and walk a few blocks to the center. 
 

Using Existing Parking Resources

Traditionally, the construction of a large venue is also accompanied by the construction of a large adjacent parking structure, which can displace businesses and residents, cause traffic congestion at the venue site, and take up significant amounts of public space. Both Seattle’s Climate Pledge Arena and Sacramento’s Golden 1 Center avoided the need to construct a parking structure by utilizing existing infrastructure. Both cities formed partnerships with parking providers within walking distance to the venues, offering fans competitive parking rates dispersed throughout the venue’s proximity. Sacramento also altered their pricing structure, eliminating parking meters with strict time limits and instead creating a proximity-based pricing system. The new system priced parking based on distance to the Golden 1 Center with no restrictions on how long a car can stay; the closer a fan parked, the higher the hourly parking rate. This system distributed parking throughout existing city capacity, eliminating the need to develop more parking spaces while reducing traffic congestion. 
 

The Value of Transit for a Journey’s First or Last Mile

Getting to and from a large venue can cause significant delays, particularly because traditional arena parking structures force thousands of cars to compete to get in and out of the lot before and after events. Each of the cities represented have found ways to make public transit an attractive option to visitors who might otherwise accept these delays as part of the experience. In some cases, solving for just the “first/last mile” can make a big difference, especially for those who don’t live in transit-rich areas and must drive to an event, as it allows them to utilize public transit to avoid crowded venue- adjacent parking structures. In Seattle, planners found a way to use existing transit to provide fast, sustainable, and cost-effective first/last mile transportation to fans by modernizing a monorail built for the 1962 World’s Fair. In ninety seconds, the monorail can connect fans from the Climate Pledge Arena to downtown Seattle, giving fans access to downtown’s diverse public transit resources and affordable parking options during gametime. This first/last mile transportation option eases traffic congestion around the venue, saving time for all and improving the fan experience. 
 

A Great Transportation Experience Equals a Great Fan Experience

Offering a great transportation experience is a win-win for large venues and fans.  Walking out to find a parking ticket on your car or being stuck in hours of traffic to exit the venue can ruin a night; on the other hand, providing easy, safe, and affordable ways to access a stadium or arena improves the fan experience and helps bring visitors back again and again. What’s more, an easy transportation experience may help ease the stress of returning to large events in the post COVID-19 pandemic world. In Seattle, planners have gone the extra mile to ensure a great transportation experience from door to door by creating landscaped multi-use trails in the area surrounding Climate Pledge Arena. These trails will encourage fans to park farther away from the venue, as they know they will have a great walking experience to the front door. Simple improvements like this have many benefits: they further integrate the venue into the community, provide safe and efficient transportation options to all who visit the area, and ensure fans can easily get to and from the venue. 

Conclusion

San José could build on precedents in Seattle, Sacramento and San Francisco, embracing SAP Center’s urban context as a value proposition and emphasizing public transit over driving alone (particularly with its location next to Diridon Station). It’s absolutely possible for a mixed-use downtown environment and the SAP Center to coexist - and thrive. Ultimately, Diridon Station, the SAP Center and the larger downtown area are closely connected in the success of San Jose’s urban and sustainable future, one that is built for people.