Many times the biggest challenges in producing a road race have nothing to do with the road race itself. Given the incredible growth in our sport just in the past decade, what seems to be challenging many of us the most is the lack of real estate within which to conduct the event and that starts with enough space just to park all the darn cars coming to the event!
Most events aren’t lucky enough to start and finish at a major NFL football stadium or MLB baseball stadium where there could be tens of thousands of parking spots conveniently available for all your participants. As such, when planning out your race, you not only need to think about water stations and registration and road cones and timing clocks, but you have to spend an equal or greater amount of time figuring out where all these people are going to park, especially if there is no public transportation to assist.
Personally, I have directed a number of races where the parking and transportation become 90% of our work. For these races, it is more a parking and transportation event with a road race tossed in the middle! For example, we manage the Mt. Washington Road Race each year in New Hampshire and the thing that dictates the field size is how many cars we can park at the summit to transport the runners back down! If we can park say 400 and we can transport three runners per car back down to the base, then our field size limit is 1,200 runners!
I asked a few of my DMSE colleagues who specialize in this very important area of race management if they would list out a few tips to share. Mike Giallongo, Larry Murphy, and Tom Donovan gave it their best shot and below is what they collectively recommend:
PERSONNEL - A lot of people are needed to park cars quickly and safely. Don’t underestimate what is needed. It just takes one car to park in the wrong place and the entire program can be paralyzed.
EXPERIENCE - Foot traffic will be interspersed with vehicles as runners exit their cars. You are almost always going to have inexperience people assisting with parking (volunteers, etc.), but at least a few parking-experienced staff are essential to guide the program, ideally about a 1 to 5 ratio. The "experience" can be as little as having worked one previous event, but more is obviously better. Also, a similar ration of older adults to younger adults should be maintained with 18-years-old being the youngest age for volunteers.
TRAINING - It is essential to train your personnel in the basics of quick, safe parking, especially for unmarked or open field locations. Gather a small group for a "train-the-trainer", ideally, a day or two before the event. Otherwise, have the parking team report at least 1 hour before the earliest parker is expected for training - very important.
CALCULATION – Take the number of projected runners and divide by two. Use this as your estimated number of parking spots needed. Also, need to factor in volunteer spots needed, race staff and maybe even spectator needs.
START WITH THE FLOW - Where will they be coming from? How do you want them to leave? How does the space you have support that?
DEFINE THE SPACE – Need to do this ahead of the event. Where will the travel lanes be? Mark out the parking boxes. Maybe use marked ropes and stakes. Identify where signage would help.
LOCATION - Marked lots are infinitely easier to use and, of course, the bigger the better. If possible, always allow for at least 10% more spaces than you think you'll need for last-minute sign-ups, sloppy parking (some take 2 spaces), etc. Don't forget to plan for parking of VIPs, staff, and volunteers, too.
OPEN FIELDS – These are harder to use, but unavoidable at some events. Figure on needing about 10% more personnel for this because you have to guide each car to a location that is not as visibly marked. Safe entrance and exit lanes must be maintained so anyone can depart when they need to. Emergency vehicle access lanes must be, too. Drawings are important to determine capacity, traffic flow, etc.
REMOTE LOTS & SHUTTLE OPERATIONS - Often adequate parking is not available within walking distance of the start/finish line for a closed loop course. In that case or in a point-to-point race, you'll need to shuttle people back to the parking lots. In that case, you must consider how and where to locate the shuttle pick-up/drop-off operation so that the bus traffic does not affect the smooth flow of vehicles into the parking lot. The shuttle operation is a topic unto itself deserving of attention in a specially devoted article.
PUBLIC SAFETY SUPPORT - Despite all our best efforts to park vehicles quickly and safely, even momentary back-ups on the roads leading to and from the parking lots can create concerns for public safety officials. Make sure they are thoroughly informed of your parking and shuttle plans when discussing support for other aspects of the event. Additional intersection and/or entrance/exit control by public safety officials may be required.
EQUIPMENT - Most municipalities require personnel directing traffic to wear safety vests and utilize flags when they are in roadways. This is essential for personnel operating inside the lots too both for their own safety and to clearly and easily identify themselves. Runners approaching in their cars are much more likely to follow direction when your staff look and act official with the proper safety equipment.
I direct a Thanksgiving Day race that has a major parking lot available for participants to park. Unfortunately, there is only one way in and one way out. As a result, the back up in leaving the race can be so long some are fearful of missing Thanksgiving dinner! As such, no one parks there anymore and they just park somewhere legally within the surrounding neighborhood. Thank goodness the community is tolerant of this or we’d really be in trouble. So in some very unique cases, the best plan is no plan at all!! After all, it is Thanksgiving!
So, as you can see, it is not always just about the runners…sometimes it can be more about where to put all the CARS!!