An Introduction to Planning Air Show Traffic Patterns, Parking and Shuttle Operations

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At every air show, parking and shuttle systems are the first and last impression for spectators. Most events forget this and, with a “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality, gloss over this aspect of their event and settle for implementing whatever was done in the past. Meanwhile, a golden opportunity to improve customer satisfaction is missed.

With a proper parking, traffic, and shuttle plan, air show event organizers can identify these opportunities for improvement by having all the various agencies involved in the process.  This plan requires every agency’s input to work: event organizers, police, fire, parking, shuttles, and the local community.  By assisting in the development of the plan, these groups will be more likely to embrace the plan, as well as implement it during the event.

A simple way to create a parking, traffic, and shuttle plan is to follow the chronological path of an attendee from the time they approach the event until they leave. The parts of the plan are: major arteries, secondary arteries, parking areas, shuttle system, and, finally, the exit plan.

Major Arteries

To help the local community understand the impact that your traffic and parking plan may have on them, signage should be posted a few days prior to the event along the roads most traveled. Also, on these major arteries, Variable Message Signs (VMS) are effective tools to help get the attention of local residents, air show spectators and attendants. They also have the additional benefit of being able to be changed quickly to address road closures, unexpected changes in traffic conditions or the use of alternate parking locations.

Secondary Roads

Secondary roads lead spectators into the parking area. And because the secondary roads serving airports are seldom built to handle the volume of traffic typically present during air show weekends, traffic planning on these secondary roads is a particularly important and sensitive issue for air show event organizers.

Again, VMS are helpful here to change traffic flow when lots are filled. This is also where supporting signs should be clearly posted and visible to all air show fans. A few examples are signs that include information regarding parking fees, event hours, and prohibited items. A police presence should begin here. A detailed plan will designate where the police posts will be located, as well as a set of objectives for each post.

In most situations, the traffic plan on secondary roads should be developed to minimize the decisions and options available to spectators arriving at the show site by car. Options tend to slow traffic down and create back-ups

Parking Area

Many events do not have the luxury of paved lots with painted spaces. Very often, organized lots must be created from empty fields. To maximize the area that is available, well marked parking areas need to be created. This can be accomplished by using several different techniques, including rope and stake, field paint, hay bales, or traffic cones. By marking off every 60 feet, cars can be directed to form double rows, leaving aisles of about 25 feet in width. The general rule is that approximately 140 cars will fit on an acre.  Whatever technique you choose to designate the parking area, be sure to explain the parking plan to the staff and explain how to use the parking markers you have put in place.

When the vehicles enter into the parking area, make sure that it is well marked with signs or traffic personnel to direct them where to go. This is usually the choke point at most events. Drivers will stop their cars if they become confused or if your plan is not immediately clear to them as they enter the parking area. When cars stop at this point, it will have a ripple effect all the way back onto your secondary roads and, even sometimes, your major arteries.

If you decide to have either ticket or money collection at the parking area entrance, it is imperative that there are enough personnel to fill all of the collection lanes. This is another source of potential back-ups if there are not enough personnel to ensure that the ticket/money collection does not slow the overall movement of traffic into parking spots. In order to maintain a constant flow, you will also need personnel to assist vehicles with merging lanes as they exit the collections area.

As the vehicles follow the instructions of the personnel to the parking area, the staff needs to have the cars approaching them from the correct side. This means that the staff should be between the parking area and vehicle (see map).  This will avoid vehicles from diverting from a path that will efficiently and neatly park the car in a designated single spot.  When the vehicle approaches the spot, a team of three is required:

The first attendant ensures the angle of the vehicle is correct to head straight into the spot without having to turn the wheels (normally 45 to 55 feet from bumper stop position).

The second attendant will be on the side of the car about 4 steps (12ft) from the cars that just parked.  This will guarantee the car spacing is correct.

The third attendant will be in front of the car that is parking, guiding it into the correct stop position.

Parking lot location signs positioned throughout the parking area are very important. (For example, Blue Lot, Section D.) This will allow spectators to locate their vehicles at the end of the air show. This will also allow attendees with reserved or handicap passes to know where they are supposed to park. 

Shuttle System

When using shuttles, you must identify what type of shuttle service you are offering: convenience, full service, or American Disability Act (ADA) compliant.

Convenience shuttle systems are used to handle the elderly and families with small children. A few shuttles are put into a loop to get this demographic to the front of the lot or to the event. This assumes that all others will walk.

Full service shuttle systems use a fleet of shuttles to transport all or most of the attendees from the parking area to the event. This system can get very costly and adds an aspect of crowd control which needs to be addressed.

Let’s use a small scale scenario: an event of 10,000 people is located one mile away from the front the parking area, with a dedicated bus lane to ensure no traffic. Seventy percent of the attendees are still on the ramp at the conclusion of the show. And almost all of them will want to go immediately to their vehicles. That means that 7,000 people must be moved in about one hour. One bus will take approximately ten minutes to make a loop. So, in order to move 7,000 people in one hour, you would need about 20 coach buses or 30 school buses, (assuming 55 and 40 capacity, respectively).  In addition to the shuttles, you will need a system to organize the crowd and maximize the loading of the buses.  Think of the lines at Disney World and how they queue you up to get on a ride.

When implementing a shuttle system, organization is the key to success. If left unorganized, the happy crowd of attendees could look like an angry mob attempting to besiege each shuttle that returns to the pick-up area. However, attendees will take notice of proper organization and follow the directions of well-trained staff personnel. The illustration below illustrates a system used to load and unload shuttles efficiently.  As the attendee enters into the serpentine line, they will be directed into which rows to turn down when a sufficient number of people approach.  They approach the end of the serpentine and get ready to board a shuttle.  A staff member counts out a specific number of people (40 for school buses, 55 for coaches) and they are sent down each aisle to queue for loading.  A set of shuttles pull up to a chute and the attendees load onto the shuttle and the process restarts for the next set.  If there are spectators still arriving at the event, the shuttle will pull up to the serpentine but will drop off the arriving attendees before they get directly up to the chutes, so as not to impede the spectators loading. If you keep the people moving and the buses return at a regular pace, what once looked like a mob will become an orderly efficiently exiting group of attendees.  

Unfortunately, many events ignore issues related to vehicles exiting the parking area at the conclusion of the event, sometimes even dismissing all or most of the parking attendants sometime during the middle of the air show. To ensure a safe and orderly exit, a plan needs to be in place and sufficient personnel must be on hand to execute that plan.

If possible and when available, plan on using multiple exits. One enterprising event organizer actually went as far as paying for and building a road and new gate on the airport perimeter fence that is only used once each year during the air show. Visible exit signs should direct spectators to major arteries. With these well-marked exits, they will flow out of the event smoothly, even if the exit is not in the exact direction of their destination. Use your parking attendants to help spread the vehicles out among all of your exit routes. 

Summary

With an involved and invested team, your parking, traffic, and shuttle plan can be developed and implemented effectively.  It will allow you to focus your attention on other aspects of the air show.  Most importantly, a proper parking and shuttle plan can leave such a positive impression, that attendees will look forward to coming back next year and promote your event to their friends and family!

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Jeffrey Shapiro
Jeff Shapiro is the founder and senior director of operations for Solutions Events Services, a Long Island, New York-based company that provides special events parking and transportation consulting services to air shows throughout North America.