Transportation Management Strategies for the Olympics

By Gordon L. Linden and Chi-Hsin Shao

Presented to: The International Chinese Transportation Professional Association (ICTPA)

May 10-13, 2002 - Beijing

Spectators arriving at Opening Ceremonies for the 2002 Winter Paralympic Games via Salt Lake City's new LRT System.

The scale, complexity, and time required to prepare for a Summer Olympic Games has grown exponentially over the past two decades. In the past, preparations for the Games began as late as one to two years before the event. Today, host cities are immersed in detailed planning almost immediately after they complete their bids. Transportation is one of the most critical systems in the overall Games program. As such, it will receive a great deal of attention, scrutiny, and questioning from a variety of organizations including the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the National Olympic Committees (NOC’s), the International Federations (IF’s) and other international organizations. The events of September 11th have escalated concerns about the security of athletes, participants, and dignitaries at major sports events and the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing will be no exception. A comprehensive transportation planning process must be implemented and it must take into account the needs of the multiple users of the Games’ transportation system, the unique characteristics of the travel patterns, how needed services will be provided and, where appropriate (such as for the spectators), the costs of these services.

Spectators arriving at Opening Ceremonies for the 2002 Winter Paralympic Games via Salt Lake City's new LRT System.

For the IOC, regularly scheduled progress meetings will be the primary means of reviewing and interacting in the transportation planning process. However, the other organizations with interest in and responsibility for participation in the Games will not have a similar level of internal organization. Thus, the needs for interacting with Beijing’s transportation planners may be expected to be constant and increasing over the years as Games’ time approaches.

Key Characteristics Affecting Transportation Services

Key to planning for transportation services for the Olympic Games is the need to gain an understanding of the unique travel patterns and needs during the Games.

Large Volume of Participants During a Short Period of Time

For the summer Olympic Games, there could be 120,000 to 140,000 accredited participants. These include members of the Olympic Family (sports delegations, media, and dignitaries and sponsors) and operations staff. In addition, there will be tens of thousands of spectators. Of these participants, approximately 30-35 percent (40,000 people) are Olympic Family members and 65-70 percent (90,000 people) are operations staff. Of the total number of Olympic Family members, 75 percent (30,000 people) are sports delegations and media representatives.

Transportation for the Olympic family members is typically arranged by the host city free of charge. Athletes competing for the sports and their support team members typically reside in the Olympic Village, while others stay at hotels. These individuals must be transported to the venue locations on time daily during the Games. Due to the large number of people to be transported, wide range of locations these people stay during the Game, and the number of venues (220-300 events) and venue locations (20-25), providing transportation services becomes a very challenging task. As a result, a large number of volunteers (approximately 5,000) are engaged by the organizing committee and a large number of buses are borrowed (approximately 5,000) from other cities during this period. Managing a large number of volunteers and loaned buses can be a daunting challenge, even for the best prepared organization.

Operational staff persons have different needs. They are not necessarily local residents. Some of them, especially security staff and support company staff, may come from out-of-town or even out of the country. While local residents are familiar with local transportation system and services, special arrangements are usually necessary, such as parking and shuttle buses. For the out-of-town and out-of-country operational staff, buses are usually used.

Large Volume of Out- of- Town and Foreign Participants

Out-of-town and foreign participants are not familiar with the local transportation system and services. Many foreign participants will have language barriers. Public information and language training of operations staff become extremely important. Well-trained operations staff could reduce confusion by these out-of-town and foreign participants and hence, reduce travel demand. For the Salt Lake City 02' Winter Olympics, Salt Lake City area hotels and media told participants that the best way to go to the Opening Ceremonies was to take the LRT. The UTA had staff persons at major LRT stops directing people to use the correct LRT route to the Opening and Closing Ceremonies. This operation was proven very effective and successful.

No Time for Mistakes

The complexity of the transportation operation can be appreciated if we bear in mind that participants have a variety of reasons for their journeys, with tremendous variation in the timetables and routes and considerable dispersion of the starting and points and destinations. It is essential to bear in mind that the timetables of the sports events are fixed and cannot be changed. Consequently, flexibility, contingency, and redundancy must be properly incorporated into the planned transportation services in case unexpected events were to occur.

Integration of Transportation Services

The local Olympic Game organizing committee can be very large and typically has four Committees (Administration and Management Committee, Facilities Committee, Media Management Committee, and Operations Committee). Transportation is one of the most important tasks of the Operations Committee. The Transportation Manager must be an integral member of the overall operating committee. On the other hand, the Transportation Manager must have a seamless organization to manage and provide transportation services; his or her relationships with the Administration and Management Committee would include obtaining an appropriate number of volunteers during the Games and funding for transportation systems enhancement and services. Relationships with the Facilities Committee would include clearly understanding of the needs and the proper handling of goods, services, and people (access) to various venue locations and the Olympic Village. Relationships with the Media Management Committee would include the timely dissemination of public information regarding transportation services.

Long Lead Time to Plan and Enhance Transportation Services

Due to the complexity of the transportation services, long lead-times are needed; in order to properly prepare for Olympic transportation services, a four to five year lead-time is not uncommon. A well-planned Olympic Games would have a full time Transportation Manager in the beginning of the planning phase. This individual would be responsible for the development of a conceptual transportation management plan, and the subsequent refinement and implementation of the plan. During the planning phase, the IOC will review and provide oversight of the progress of the transportation plan. In the early planning for transportation services there is usually more careful scrutiny of the systems and rolling stock than was undertaken during the bid preparation which results in the conclusion that improvements are needed.

The primary phases of transportation planning would include initial development of the concept plan, validation and simulation of Game Time operations, and development of a database of the delegations and staff, vehicle fleets, and travel times for each vehicle. Potential enhancements would include major system expansion, a traffic control center, a monitoring and security system, and ITS technology deployment. These enhancements could cost several hundred million to a billion dollars, and several years to develop.

In some cases, it has been possible to obtain rolling stock from other cities and countries, as was done for buses in Los Angeles ’84, Barcelona ’92 and Atlanta ’96. The availability of high quality, air-conditioned buses in these other cities made it possible for the organizers to avoid purchasing new equipment which would not be needed after the Games. A clear understanding of the needs and an earlier agreement with these cities would save cost and ensure availability.


Large investments in transportation services may be necessary for the host city. This is a great opportunity to leave behind a legacy for future economic development and overcome existing deficiencies. Sometimes the reason for this change in outlook has nothing to do with theoretical capacity. The changes are needed because of the city or countries’ image in the world. With the eyes of the world focusing on the host city’s aging roadway and transit system, and belching smoke from old bus and rail cars, it is often the case that substantial investments are made in upgrading a city’s transportation services. Athens recently constructed its subway system to prepare the 04’s Summer Olympics, while Atlanta 96' constructed its Metro system, and Salt Lake City 02' constructed its LRT system and made substantial investments in I-15 and I-80 freeways, park and ride lots, and ITS systems. These improvements are usually made in concert with long-term regional needs.

Lessons Learned From Past Olympic Games

Lessons learned from the past Games, both successes and failures, would be extremely valuable. They should be used only as a guide during the planning phase. Beijing should develop a plan that works for Beijing. This plan would take into consideration the past experiences and incorporate the unique local transportation system, organizational structure, and management system in Beijing. The following are some key lessons learned.

The Unknown Factors

The spectators’ transportation needs can theoretically be calculated on the basis of the number and scheduling of the sporting and other events, the venue capacities and the locations of the venues. However, there are other factors which may affect the actual demand such as: weather, ticket prices, the level of spectator interest in the sport or event, and the propensity of spectators to expend time on this type of entertainment vs. other choices. These unknowns could result in inadequate supply or oversupply of transportation services. For example, in the 1988 Seoul Olympics, many venues registered low attendance. Observers cited many factors affecting the turnout as following: 1) Korea has a 6-day workweek and people did not wish to use scarce vacation time for the Olympics; 2) ticket prices were relatively high compared to workers’ wages; and 3) finally, Korean Government officials were very concerned about the potential security risks from North Korea and did not heavily market the Olympics to countries in the region. In Barcelona, and in Spain in general, baseball is a relatively unknown sport: thus, there was little interest in the local community to attend these events.

Provision of Transportation Services and Information

The needs for participants’ transportation services may be planned for on the basis of the size and composition of the various groups involved (e.g. athletes and officials, IOC, NOC’s, IF’s, etc.), the location of the competition and non-competition venues (e.g. airport, training sites, etc.) and the schedule of activities, ranging from arrivals prior to the Games to departures after Closing Ceremonies. For example, at Atlanta ’96, in an effort to reduce costs for additional bus capacity at the Opening Ceremonies, some athletes were kept waiting long into the night for transport back to the Olympic Village. Because the transportation services provided to this group are so critical to the success of the Games, it is important to recognize from the outset that planning for these services should incorporate factors for redundancy of systems and contingencies which are not part of the traditional transportation planning process.

Public Information

There are large volumes of out-of-town and foreign visitors and participants of the Olympic games. Lack of proper information could cause confusion and complaints. At Atlanta 96', non-local bus drivers were used. Those drivers who were not familiar with the Atlanta metropolitan area and who had inadequate training prior to the Games were, on several occasions, delayed in transporting athletes to competitions. In Korea 88', inadequate information about transportation schedules led several athletes to miss transport from the Village for competition. When officials were informed of the problem, there was no backup system available to resolve the problems. On the contrary, during the recent Salt Lake City Winter Olympics 02' UTA had several staff persons at key LRT stops participants to the Opening Ceremony. In addition, media and hotels employees were instructed to inform participants to take LRT to the stadium, instead of driving their cars or getting a taxi. This operation made it much easier to the participants to use the LRT, and substantially reduced vehicular traffic at the stadium.


No doubt, Beijing will spend considerable effort in preparation for the 08' Summer Olympic Games. In order to properly plan the transportation services for the Beijing Olympic Games, the following recommendations and conclusions are provided for consideration.

Plan Early

This early planning should include experts who have been involved in the planning and operations of past Olympics. It is also important that the designated Transportation Manager visit the 04' summer Olympic Games in Athens and the 06' Winter Olympic Game in Torino as an observer. This first hand experience will be invaluable.

Typically, the first element of the planning phase is to develop two critical reports, the first report documents the existing transportation system and services, in terms of capacity, operations, and management. The second report examines the past Olympic transportation services, in terms of their successes and failures and potential application to the Beijing Olympic Games.

The planning effort certainly should include a well thought-out organizational structure. The Salt Lake 2002 Olympics was regarded as a successful operation wherein the Director in charge of the Transportation Command consists of four operations, traffic control center, airport, overall systems control, and area control.

No Detail is Too Much

Planning for transportation services should be as detailed as possible. The Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games Transportation Committee included an elaborate traffic simulation model to predict bus travel time among various routes, both to ensure on-time performance and the safety of the Olympic Family members. The simulation model was initially developed and then validated with real travel time data; it also included a detailed database of the fleet and individuals involved in providing transportation services. This database tracks the location of the buses and absenteeism on the part of the volunteers. As a result, it provided efficiency and predictability of transportation services.

Built-in Flexibility and Redundancy

Do not just plan for the theoretic capacity. Due to numerous uncertainties and potentially unexpected events, built-in flexibility and redundancy is a must. For almost all past Olympic Games, volunteer absenteeism does occur. When this occurs, it has the potential to cause disruptions in transportation services: built-in flexibility and redundancy would remedy the problem.

Training of Volunteers and Rehearsal of Routes

If volunteers are used (approximately 80 percent of total number of operations staff), training of these volunteers is critical. The training would include a clear understanding of transportation goals, the roles and responsibilities of individuals, reporting procedures, and even a rehearsal of bus routes by volunteer bus drivers.

Safety and security system

With the bombing in Atlanta 96' and the September 11th incident in New York and Washington DC, safety and security of the athletes and other participants are essential. The security system inevitably has the potential to cause delays in transportation services and bottlenecks at key check points. It can also affect how the transportation systems are designed. The Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games has two layers of check points in the Olympic Village and equipped AVL and GPS systems in all van/bus involved in transporting Olympic family members, so they can track the location of the 2,500 van/buses to ensure the safety of the Olympic Family members.

Legacy - Investment and funding

Salt Lake City used federal dollars to build a LRT system and to improve two freeways (I-15 and I-80). Barcelona built significant highway improvements which reduced travel times to remote venues for athletes and Olympic family members. Barcelona also built a new airport terminal and a new fleet of taxis was deployed during the Games. Athens has replaced its aging, out of date airport and built a new one to international standards. Athens has also built new underground transit extensions. These are major investments that may or may not have been constructed without the Olympic Games. The investments have helped improve transportation services of the host cities and stimulated economic development for the future.

Work Closely with IOC and Media Representatives

Transportation services provided during the Olympic Games definitely affect the image of the host city and country as perceived via television and the media as well as by visitors. Working closely with IOC staff, Beijing can gain the maximum positive benefits of the Games; a close working relationship with the media is also very important in order to ensure favorable impressions of Beijing are broadcast to the rest of the world.

Chi-Hsin Shao, PE, AICP

Mr. Chi-Hsin Shao holds a master degree in Infrastructure Planning and Management from Stanford University and a bachelor degree in Architecture from Chung Yuan University in Taiwan. He is a licensed professional traffic engineer (P.E.) in the State of California and a certified urban planner (AICP) in the US. He has more than 23 years experience in transportation planning, of which he served as the Head of the Transportation Section of the San Francisco City Planning Department (1983-1987) and the Deputy Commissioner of Policy and Planning with the Boston Transportation Department (1987-2000). His consulting experience includes a Principal with Cambridge Systematics (1990-1992), a Vice President with Korve Engineering (1992-1998), and the founder of CHS Consulting Group (1998 to present).

During the past 12 years as a transportation consultant, Mr. Shao developed transportation management and operations plans for a wide range of special events, such as plans for the 49ers Football Team and Giants Baseball Team at the Candlestick Park Stadium; Golden State Warriors Baseball Team’s pursuit for a ballpark in San Francisco; Concord Pavilion, Marine World Africa USA in Vallejo, and World Expo Feasibility Studies in San Francisco and Oakland, California.

Gordon Linden, AIA, AICP

Mr. Gordon Linden holds a master degree in Urban Planning from the University of Southern California and an MBA in business administration from Golden Gate University as well as a bachelor’s degree in architecture from the University of California, Berkeley. He is an internationally renowned urban planner, specializing in planning for special events, such as Olympics and World Expos. Mr. Linden is currently the Manager of Project Development Services with Parsons Corporation and previously the Manager of the Entertainment Industry Group with Bechtel Corporation.

Mr. Linden has been involved in the planning of Olympic Games in the past 10 years. He served as an Advisor and Program Manager for four Olympics (Athens 04’, Salt Lake City 02’, Atlanta 96’ and Barcelona 92’). He was an accredited observer of two Olympics (Sydney 00’ and Nagano 98’). He also served as an Advisor and a planner for several World Expos (Seville’92, Vienna/Budapest’95 [planned], and Hong Kong [planned]).