Our offseason Four Downs series ends with a look at the NFC West's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. The Rams and 49ers have to kick-start their passing games, Arizona's offense lacks a big dimension, and the Seahawks continue to rely on Russell Wilson's magic tricks.
08 Sep 2006
by Mike Tanier
See if you can relate to this pre-game experience:
Kickoff is thirty minutes away. Traffic is backed up a quarter-mile from the freeway off-ramp. You inch along, idling and braking, the stadium still a zip code away.
Twenty minutes to kickoff. You approach the stadium at a slow crawl on a two-lane street unequipped to handle event traffic. You weigh your parking options. An unguarded warehouse lot one mile from the stadium is charging $10 to park your car among ticket scalpers, overflowing garbage cans, and shattered bottles. The official stadium lot costs $25, but you might not reach it by kickoff. There's a cozy little neighborhood just blocks from the arena. Residents wouldn't mind if you parked in front of their houses, would they? Well, they probably would.
Ten minutes to kickoff. You finally found a parking spot. Now, you must walk three-fourths of a mile and cross four streets, all of them choked with traffic, to reach the stadium. It's 90 degrees in September, or maybe it's 20 degrees in December. And raining. You are almost run over twice. Your feet hurt. You're missing the national anthem. Your friend with the plasma television is at home on his couch, laughing at you.
You gaze out at hundreds of rows of parked cars, marveling at the gridlocked traffic, the throngs of pedestrians, and the rowdy behavior. Is anyone really managing this chaos? Who actually decides where you can park on gameday? Who makes the rules? Who enforces them? Why does it cost $25 to rent 200 square feet of asphalt for four hours?
As it turns out, stadium parking is big business. A lot of effort goes into the implementation of a coherent traffic and parking plan.
How much effort? Let's journey into the desert to find out.
Cardinals Stadium is a football palace, a feat of construction so advanced that it was featured on the television show Extreme Engineering and in dozens of architecture and design publications. The new facility, which features air conditioning and a retractable playing surface, is more than just a sports venue: it's a symbol of hope for a franchise trying to escape a 50-year cycle of futility.
But when in its planning stages, Cardinals Stadium represented a potential nightmare for residents of Glendale, Arizona. Over 70,000 fans would crowd into the city eight times per season, not counting preseason games, possible playoff games, the Fiesta Bowl, and the occasional Rolling Stones concert. Those fans would drive on Glendale highways and park in Glendale lots. The city of 220,000 residents already accommodates the Phoenix Coyotes, but the Cardinals will attract about four times as many fans as the Coyotes on any given Sunday.
As plans for the new stadium were unveiled, Glendale residents braced for choked roads and parking logjams. The 1,400 families of the Desert Mirage area were most concerned. The Desert Mirage district lies just east of the stadium; some houses literally lie across the street from the complex. When you live that close to a sports arena, your home street becomes an access route, and your driveway a potential parking space for an inconsiderate fan.
Nervous residents turned to city councilwoman Joyce Clark, who also lives "within shouting distance" of the stadium. "In my initial meetings with the residents, many issues of concern were raised," Clark said in an interview. "They shook out to be, in no particular order: traffic and cut-through traffic in neighborhoods, parking, and public safety, including normal maintenance of police and fire services."
The Cardinals couldn't turn a deaf ear to the concerns of Glendale citizens. At the same time, NFL front offices aren't staffed by experts in traffic flow or parking logistics. The Cardinals needed to call in specialists: Kaku Associates, a California-based company with 20 years of experience in the traffic and parking business.
The Cardinals, and every other major sports team, face two distinct but related automotive problems: traffic flow and parking management. The two issues go hand in hand, which is why companies like Kaku Associates handle both.
There's a lot more to parking management than paving some lots, painting some lines, and collecting money. "People's experience starts with the parking experience," according to Kim Jackson of the International Parking Institute. "If they don't have a pleasant experience, they aren't going to another game."
Most fans aren't hoping for a "pleasant" parking experience: they'll settle for swift and safe. Even that takes work. "There's an art to laying out and designing that lot," said Pat Gibson, the Kaku Associates representative who led the Cardinals Stadium team. Ideally, as pedestrians move toward their destination (Kaku works with theme parks and urban downtowns as well as sports arenas), incoming traffic should always be at their backs. And attendants must be able to "speed load" traffic into proper spaces: confusion causes traffic jams and safety hazards.
Parking is big business, and even space size is carefully calibrated. The old standard for a parking berth was 8.5 feet from stripe to stripe. But recently, spaces have widened to nine or 9.5 feet. Minivans and SUVs are commonly blamed, but Jackson said that door lengths are no wider than they were in the 1970s. "People just aren't that considerate. They don't park perfectly between the lines." Whether due to bigger vehicles or sloppy driving, some lot managers are repainting their berths, even if it means fewer spaces and less money.
Then there's the matter of traffic flow. There are Desert Mirage-like neighborhoods in most sports cities, and few of their residents want to have their streets invaded for every home game. Sometimes, main boulevards cannot handle the incoming glut of cars. Some roads may have to be blocked off on football Sundays. Others may need special lights, Sunday-only double left-turn lanes, or other restrictions. Often, a city must construct a new freeway off-ramp just to handle football fans.
Experts like Gibson or Jackson can offer solutions, assuming that they aren't called three days before the home opener. "Parking should not be an afterthought," Jackson explained. "A parking consultant should be there at the planning stage."
Gibson and his staff met with Clark, other Glendale officials, and residents at several open houses and other public meetings during the construction of Cardinals Stadium. Together, they devised a plan to prevent parking in city neighborhoods. Soft barricades temporarily restrict access to many streets. Some of the barricades are manned to ensure enforcement. Area residents and their guests show parking placards to enter their neighborhoods. A website and a hotline keep Glendale citizens up-to-date on parking issues and allow them to report trouble spots. In theory, the restrictions will keep unwanted visitors out of Desert Mirage on Sunday afternoons.
Working with Kaku Associates, the Cardinals also developed a new strategy to ease parking hassles. Every Cardinals ticket comes with a parking pass or hang-tag, so fans have a pre-paid parking space available to them somewhere in a team-approved lot. "It's a unique experiment," according to Gibson, who notes that many teams only provide pre-paid spots to their season ticket holders. The hang-tag system will encourage fans to park in assigned lots, and it will help attendants to speed load cars without stopping to collect money.
The Cardinals and the city of Glendale planned wisely. That doesn't always happen.
Jack Kent Cooke stadium opened in Landover, Maryland in 1997. Like Cardinals Stadium, the Redskins' new home was lauded as an NFL showplace. Over 80,000 fans bought tickets for the first official game in Landover: a Week 3 matchup against the Cardinals.
But Redskins fans were in for an unpleasant surprise. Motorists arriving via the Beltway reached exit 17B and just stopped. Landover Road, the primary route to the new stadium, was chocked with traffic an hour before kickoff. The backup spread to the Beltway itself, extending over 15 miles from the 17B off-ramp.
Thousands of fans missed the start of the game; some were stuck in traffic for hours. William and Sarah Cavitt waited 26 years to get season tickets, then waited 3.5 hours in traffic for the game. "I wanted to see touchdowns there, I wanted to see night games, I wanted to see them beat Dallas there, but I know now that we probably won't renew (the tickets at the end of the season) because of the traffic problems," Mrs. Cavitt told the Washington Post the next day.
Local officials scrambled. They placed signs on the Beltway urging motorists to use other exits. They urged fans to use the Metro rail line. Traffic flow improved for the Redskins' second home game, but another crisis emerged when the Redskins hosted the Cowboys on Monday night. Fans zipped down the Beltway with ease, only to discover that the stadium parking lots were filled half an hour before kickoff.
Confused parking attendants didn't know where to send motorists who were promised a parking space with their season tickets. Drivers spilled onto Landover Avenue. A bus broke down, clogging a lane, and rescue vehicles couldn't get to it. Fans waited in line for over an hour to enter the few open lots. "This is insane. We're not happy at all," fan Gary Dobson told the Washington Post. "At kickoff, I said to myself, `My God. I should be in there with a beer in one hand and peanuts in the other. Instead, I'm sitting here!' "
Traffic and parking became a season-long nightmare for the Redskins in 1997. During the off-season, the city of Landover installed closed-circuit cameras to monitor traffic and spot for accidents, and parking officials trained lot attendants so they could direct traffic more effectively. But parking for a Redskins home game remains an Olympian task to this day. Most fans park at nearby office complexes and take shuttles to the game, but the shuttles are sometimes stuck in traffic before they can reach their designated lanes.
The Cooke Stadium fiasco was a marvel of poor planning and wishful thinking, though team, city, and state officials thought that they had their bases covered at the time. Some observers, like then-county councilman Walter H. Maloney, believed that no amount of planning could have prevented the Great Jams of '97. "The problem is with the original concept (that) essentially allowed a stadium in a residential zone," Maloney told the Washington Post at the time "The chickens are finally coming home to roost."
If Maloney was right, then Cardinals fans and Glendale residents are on a crash course for a season full of headaches, and no amount of soft barricades or placard programs can solve their problems. Luckily, Gibson, the city of Glendale, and the Cardinals were determined to learn from the mistakes of the past.
Debbie Burdette is the principal traffic engineer for the city of Glendale. It's her job to prevent a repeat of what happened in Landover a decade ago. While Burdette didn't specifically study the Redskins situation, she did what she calls "lessons learned research," studying traffic and parking models that worked (or failed) in NFL cities like Tampa, Denver, and Jacksonville, as well as the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. Burdette implemented precautionary measures to keep traffic humming smoothly:
Signage: For the Redskins 1997 opener, only two flashing Beltway signs were operating, and both directed cars to clogged exit 17B. In this era of Mapquest, signage is of greater importance: Internet map sources are likely to steer everyone down the same well-traveled path.
In Glendale, wayfinder signs will be stationed four to five miles from the most popular exits, guiding motorists to alternate routes. A remote control system will allow Burdette's team to change the sign message instantly to shunt drivers away from an accident or jam. And another set of signs will guide displaced motorists back to their appropriate parking lots, so out-of-towners won't feel lost after a detour. "I call it the 'Lost Souls' program," Burdette said.
Shuttles: The Redskins and the city of Landover arranged shuttles for remote parkers in 1997, but their efforts weren't well organized. Days before kickoff, shuttle routes weren't finalized, and officials hadn't determined how the $2 shuttle fee would be collected. Glendale has limited transit infrastructure, but the city contracted a busing service to provide free shuttles for off-site motorists. Burdette is basing her model around those used in Denver and Pasadena. The shuttles will run on 93rd street, while most of the event traffic will be directed to 91st street, making the buses a speedy, desirable way to get to the game.
Spaces: Parking experts use a 3-to-1 rule of thumb when determining how many parking spots are needed for an event: each vehicle holds an average of three fans. But 3-to-1 is a rough estimate that varies from location to location. In 1997, the Redskins used the optimistic 3-to-1 ratio and hoped that the Metro rail system would deliver about 8,000 fans. But only 6,000 fans took the train, the average car held 2.3 fans, and the Redskins found themselves 4,000 parking spaces short.
Burdette and the Kaku Associates team are assuming a patron-to-car ratio of 2.3-to-1. That means they need just over 27,000 spaces. Sportsman Park, adjacent to the stadium, holds 14,000 cars. Nearby West Gate Town Center and the Youth Sports Fields can handle about 11,000 more cars. A few other off-site lots make up the difference.
One way to improve both traffic and parking conditions is to increase vehicle occupancy; more fans per car equals fewer cars. The Cardinals offer incentives to carpoolers: if you buy season tickets in blocks of three or more, you get preferred parking. Guaranteed parking and well-maintained traffic patterns will keep fans out of Desert Mirage, and they'll get fans into their seats by kickoff.
After the lots are laid out and the routes to the stadium have been planned, there's still work to be done. Parking lots don't fill and clean themselves. Most sports teams hire outside parking contractors to collect money, direct traffic flow, and maintain order in the lots. It's not as easy as it sounds.
"The biggest thing on event day is planning," according to Jeff Feemster, president and COO of EZ Parking. "If the staff is well prepared, then the execution is smooth." Feemster has been working with the Carolina Panthers since 1996; EZ Parking has maintained the team's primary lots since 1999.
According to Feemster, it takes a staff of about 25 employees to load and maintain a 4,000-space lot. Those employees include attendants to collect money, traffic directors, maintenance personnel, floaters and supervisors. Administrative personnel must be ready to handle surprises, from missing Port-a-Johns to motorists who refuse to park in line with other patrons (you know, the guy in the Corvette who has to park sideways).
Parking attendants aren't pulled off the street and given orange vests. At EZ Parking, they're given three weeks of training prior to football season. They have a strict code of conduct and dress code, and they are expected to keep traffic moving while building a positive relationship with motorists.
EZ Parking employees are also trained to deal with belligerent fans who refuse to pay or obey the rules. After listening to patron complaints and explaining lot policy, attendants ask the hostile motorist to pull to the side until a supervisor arrives. When all else fails, attendants let the belligerent driver park until the cavalry comes; one rowdy driver cannot be allowed to disrupt traffic into the lot. Lot supervisors can call in off-duty police officers in extreme cases.
Fan misbehavior is rarely an issue in Carolina, according to Feemster. His maintenance staff can flow through the lots before kickoff and distribute trash bags, which tailgating fans are happy to use. That's not the case at all NFL venues; in some cities, the parking lots look like municipal dumps after games, and drunken pre-game revelry can make tailgating an NC-17 rated experience.
The Cardinals hope to surround their new stadium with clean, orderly lots like the ones in Carolina. They're encouraging fans to "tailgate" on The Great Lawn, an 8-acre grassy park where grills and alcoholic beverages are allowed. In the Arizona heat, it isn't hard to coax fans off the asphalt and onto the grass, and it makes good traffic sense to get (sometimes tipsy) pedestrians away from the cars.
John Drum, Director of Stadium Operations for the Cardinals, wants to promote responsible picnicking on The Great Lawn. "Tailgating is not a race to see who can drain the keg the quickest," Drum explained. Security officers will supervise the Great Lawn and make sure that the atmosphere is family friendly. "If you control and maintain discipline in the parking lot it will make your life easier inside," Drum explains.
Crowd control also makes life easier for parking attendants, and it improves the entire experience of going to the game. "If fans like a lot, they will use it game after game, get to know attendants, even bring water or coffee for attendants," Feemster explained. "Fans like familiarity."
Cardinals fans may someday become familiar with the parking procedures in Glendale. But in mid-August, they suffered through a difficult "getting to know you" experience.
Everybody needs a preseason tune-up -- even traffic engineers and parking consultants.
The Cardinals made their preseason debut in August against the defending champion Pittsburgh Steelers. About 63,000 fans traveled to Glendale to see Ben Roethlisberger, Edgerrin James, and the amazing new stadium. Despite months of planning, a traffic jam outside the stadium kept many fans from seeing the opening kickoff. Traffic choked 91st Avenue, the main artery leading to the stadium, and there were backups on the freeway. It was a repeat of Landover in 1997, with one key difference: the Cardinals and the city of Glendale had a full month to fix problems before the games started to matter.
Burdette quickly identified several trouble spots. The main culprit for the jam: a poor transition from the streets to the lots. "We had a poor handoff," Burdette said a week after the game. Non season-ticket holders approached incorrect lots and weren't given adequate directions by attendants. Handicapped patrons weren't aware that each lot had parking accommodations for them, and some searched the stadium outskirts for a designated handicapped lot. With motorists playing musical chairs around the stadium, gridlock is unavoidable.
Burdette and the Cardinals made quick adjustments. "We need to do a better job of getting information to the fans," Burdette explained. The city of Glendale and the team posted updated directions and parking advice on their websites. Burdette added additional signs on the freeway to direct single-game ticket holders to their proper lots. The city added extra left turn lanes to increase traffic capacity and direct drivers onto alternate highways: four east-west streets and two north-south streets provide access to Cardinals Stadium, so there are plenty of alternatives to 91st Avenue.
In an effort to get a message to fans, Burdette made multiple radio and television appearances in the days leading to the first preseason game. Cardinals fans needed to adjust to the new reality. "Many fans used to travel to Tempe, where it took about 40 minutes to get to the game," Burdette explained. "Now we are talking about double or triple the number of fans." Indeed, fans who arrived early to picnic and see the new stadium encountered no problems. Only the latecomers got stuck on the highway.
Despite the problems, there was encouraging news after the preseason opener. The Desert Mirage community wasn't affected by the traffic jams. The soft barricades held. Councilwoman Clark and her constituents reported quiet streets. The city planned to make minor modifications to the barricade system and was working in late August to provide shade and refreshments to barricade patrolmen on hot days.
Every city has its own parking and traffic issues.
In Dallas, city ordinances and excessive heat forced the Cowboys to build asphalt-free parking lots out of a cooler, ecologically-prudent material. In San Diego, new RV restrictions had Chargers fans up in arms in the off-season. In Buffalo, snow removal is an important component of the parking plan. In Green Bay, locals are happy to give up their driveways to motorists for a small fee on Packers Sundays. In Foxboro, well, fans just hope to get home before Tuesday. Each team and city needs unique solutions, and every municipality takes its parking problems seriously.
So you may feel alone when you're stuck in traffic or parked four miles from the stadium, but you're not. Politicians, civil servants, consultants, engineers, team officials, and contractors are all working hard to get you to the game quickly and safely.
As the Cardinals Stadium experience suggests, no parking plan is perfect. If Kim Jackson was given unlimited resources, she'd design the Shangri La of arena parking: 26,000 spots for 65,000 fans, a separate lot and a separate road for RVs and buses, and teams of attendants to hand out maps, help fans find their cars, or just to greet fans with a smile and a "Let's Go Cardinals." "That customer service piece is huge," Jackson explained.
But given limited budgets, road access, and space, planners can only do so much. Fans must do their part. Feemster recommends that fans get as much information as they can about parking availability before heading to the game. Season ticket holders who have an assigned space should find it and decide if they like it long before opening day. And a little common sense can prevent major post-game headaches. "Try not to be in such a hurry to leave," Feemster suggests.
The gameday experience doesn't have to be a headache for residents in communities like the Desert Mirage: a few Sunday traffic snarls are unavoidable, but most football teams work hard to be good neighbors. "We are delighted to have the Cardinals stadium and Coyotes arena in Glendale," Clark said. "In addition to the international recognition that Glendale is receiving, they are economic development drivers." Clark rates the efforts of the Cardinals and Kaku Associates as "nothing short of spectacular." And while there will be glitches in the parking plan, Clark has encouraged her Desert Mirage neighbors to "not only tell us what is not working, but to tell us what is working."
No matter what the experts and politicians do, it's up to us as fans to make gameday travel safe and easy. We can leave early, read our maps carefully, drive defensively, party responsibly, park courteously, clean up after ourselves, and bring a sandwich and soda to enjoy while the lots empty. When we do our part, the best laid plans of engineers and city councils have a chance to actually work, and we can spend Sundays in palaces like Cardinals Stadium, not in freeway traffic.
31 comments, Last at 15 Sep 2006, 9:34am by Steve W