Planning Transit to a Suburban Stadium: An Example from Silicon Valley (Guest Post)

By Matthew Roth (Flickr: #NinersYodel 49ers Faithful-21) , via Wikimedia Commons.

By Matthew Roth (Flickr: #NinersYodel 49ers Faithful-21) , via Wikimedia Commons.

About the authors:  Michelle DeRobertis and Richard Lee are both transportation consultants and educators with 30-years’ experience, mainly in the San Francisco Bay Area. Michelle has a M.S. degree from UC-Berkeley and is currently completing a PhD at Università degli Studi di Brescia in Italy. Richard received his PhD in City Planning from UC Berkeley in 1995, taught transport planning in New Zealand in the late 1990s, and is now Director of Innovation and Sustainability at VRPA Technologies. Michelle co-founded the non-profit research and policy institute, and serves on its Board, as does Richard. Michelle can be reached at [email protected] , Richard at [email protected].  This post first appeared on the website.

In the wake of this year’s Super Bowl, the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) Journal has published an article reviewing the transportation planning for the site of last year’s Super Bowl: the San Francisco 49ers new Levi’s stadium. After playing for over 60 years in one of the most transit-oriented cities in the United States, in 2014 the 49ers moved to this $1 billion facility 40 miles south in the highly-congested and car-oriented Silicon Valley.

The transportation planning for the new stadium was done primarily via an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) that used automobile level of service (LOS) as its only transportation performance metric. The EIR referred to two separate transportation management plans in the transit analysis, but neither addressed, for example, the needed capital and operational improvements for the light rail system to accommodate the forecasted demand, nor the responsibility for paying these costs.

Two years after its opening, there is some good news for transit: ridership is roughly double what was predicted. On the other hand, up to 10,000 people wait after games for light rail trains that hold 300.   Moreover, the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), the main transit provider, is recovering only about a third of the cost of supplemental services to serve stadium events, despite the stadium being considered a “financial success” and parking fees that start at $40 per car.

Furthermore, while games are nominally sold out (as they were at their former home at Candlestick Park), actual attendance is down since the opening two seasons; the 49ers will not release the actual turnstile numbers, but some games have appeared only half full.   Both the team’s performance and the hassle getting there contribute to the no-show affect.

The San José Mercury News has published many articles about the financial impacts of the stadium to the City and the community, some conflicting. For example, this San Jose Mercury-News article says the stadium “has been a financial success”, but many other articles from this very same newspaper reported that VTA and taxpayers were left holding the bag for the millions of dollars it costs to provide extra transit service to the site. Moreover, the host City of Santa Clara is only concerned about its costs. VTA, as a separate authority , is left out of the financial discussions, a common failure in transportation policy throughout California and the US.

Major regional facilities such as this 80,000-seat stadium not only generate an enormous amount of travel, they influence a region’s form, development and transportation systems for decades. How can transportation professionals improve the scope and quality of their analysis and recommendations to better plan for such regional attractors? The article provides some answers, but we would be interested in hearing more ideas for improving future analyses and learning about other cases, especially ones where the planning was more proactive and the results more positive.

20 Responses to Planning Transit to a Suburban Stadium: An Example from Silicon Valley (Guest Post)

  1. Todd Medema February 21, 2017 at 6:46 pm #

    I still fail to understand how stadium project after stadium project leaves taxpayers straddled with millions in debt, yet we keep doing them…

    That aside, something that I’ve noticed here in Pittsburgh that seems to be just as relevant on both coasts – agencies just aren’t talking to each other and cooperating enough. Here, our bike share group isn’t coordinating with our bus group, so there are two separate systems with no coordination around shared passes or stop / transfer points.

    In the case of this stadium, it sounds like part of it is doing a better up-front assessment of costs and LOS around mass transit (and biking! especially in nice California weather….), but part of it is also better coordinating demand with supply. The local mass transit should ABSOLUTELY be running more service on game day (and they should be able to at least break even from that, since they’d be running at peak capacity….). In general, it should be possible for major events and activities to submit their plans to transit authorities (date / time / location / number of people expected) so that they can run extra capacity as needed (if they were really desperate for money, they could also then sell that event / demand data to Uber / Lyft…)

    Just my two cents as an urban design student 🙂

    • asdf2 February 22, 2017 at 7:03 pm #

      Even if every train is completely packed, it’s harder to break even just from fares than it may seem. The problem is that the extra gameday demand isn’t balanced throughout the system – everyone is going to the game before the game starts and from the game after the game ends, and to make matters worse, the agency doesn’t know in advance at exactly which time the game will end and everybody will storm out of the stadium en masse.

      What is effectively means is that for every trainload of people going to the game, it’s not enough to just operate one train there and one train back. Every time a train drops off a load of people before the game, that train has to go somewhere (no room to leave it sitting around by the stadium for 3+ hours), which means a lot of empty trains being driven around to get into position to carry the next load. Furthermore, the time during the game itself is too short for drivers to be able to go home and do anything useful before it’s time to turn around and prepare to take a load of people back, so the agency effectively has to pay the drivers full wages to sit around and play Sudoku for a couple of hours while the game is going on. When all is said and done, each trainload of people making a round trip requires paying a driver for at least 4-5 hours, even though the average passenger might not be on the train for more than an hour total (30 minutes before the game, 30 minutes after).

      That is a lot of why even completely packed special event trains often cannot cover their operating costs at normal fares. And that doesn’t even include other considerations, for example, finding a whole bunch of extra drivers to cover just 8 football games might require paying overtime, which costs 1.5 times the normal wage. (Which may still be cheaper than the cost of recruiting and training extra drivers who would only work 8 days out of the year). A lot of these problems would go away, if only the trains could become automated.

      • George Lane February 22, 2017 at 7:39 pm #

        +1, a peak hour peak direction service is inefficient whether it is a work commute of travel to a game.

      • Uncle Albert's Nephew February 26, 2017 at 6:05 am #

        Would it have been cheaper in the long run to build a storage yard at the stadium than to drive empty trains around?

        • asdf2 March 1, 2017 at 11:06 pm #

          Probably not, since it’s only worth so much capital investment around serving a stadium that only hosts eight games per year.

  2. el_slapper February 22, 2017 at 5:15 am #

    Happy to live in France, where the Stade de France in Saint Denis has been built “with not enough parking places, this being on purpose”, and it’s advised to go there by RER(high-capacity suburban train, 2 lines lead to the stadium), by subway(1 line), or by Bus(3 lines).

    • Mike Robinson February 22, 2017 at 6:03 am #

      It’s just as well the transport links are so good from Stade de France to central Paris because there is nothing else to see and do in St Denis! 😉

      I was at Murrayfield rugby stadium in Edinburgh last month (about 70k capacity). There is no car parking and traditionally people either walked or got the bus there however Edinburgh has recently put in a tram (light rail) line that runs beside the stadium.

      I was expecting a huge wait to get the tram back into the city but was pleasantly surprised that it didn’t take that long – I’m not sure if they change service patterns when a game is on.

      • Webster February 22, 2017 at 2:16 pm #

        Well, there’s a rather important Basillica in St. Denis, where some important historical figures -royals – happen to be buried 😉

  3. SounderBruce February 22, 2017 at 5:22 pm #

    One league that is bucking the trend is Major League Soccer, who are encouraging teams (especially expansions) to build new, smaller-capacity stadiums in urban areas with transit access, and sometimes with private money. Of the post-2008 stadiums built for the league, only Kansas City and Philadelphia (actually in Chester) have transit accessibility issues; the rest are served by frequent bus or rail service.

    • George Lane February 22, 2017 at 6:16 pm #

      I wonder how much the heavy European influence on the global game has in those decisions? Teams are more likely to be modelled on European clubs than other Major Leagues?

      • Don't ask me August 19, 2017 at 11:39 am #

        It may be the fact that MLS as a league owns all the teams, which is unusual in both the US and Europe.

  4. Mark February 23, 2017 at 8:57 am #

    Keep in mind that Candlestick Park was hardly close to mass transit. Bus shuttles and driving were the most common means of getting the stadium. The problem in Santa Clara is that the VTA light rail system is poorly designed and has low ridership. Too many competing transit systems in the Bay Area with little to no communication among them. Getting to Caltrain from most parts of SF and the peninsula is a major feat since you have to either spend an hour on Muni in SF to get to a station or drive/park to a station, ride it to San Jose then transfer to light rail. It’s simply easier to drive, suck up the ridiculous parking fee and call it a day.

    The A’s have been threatening to move to Fremont and build a ballpark absolutely nowhere near transit. More backwards thinking in the Bay Area.

  5. david vartanoff February 23, 2017 at 3:31 pm #

    Many years ago Paul Macartney played the Cal Berkeley football stadium which like Candlestick is not transit friendly. BART was overwhelmed, running 10 car trains as close together as they emptied to bus shuttles. At the Fremont terminal, they had office workers selling tickets for cash on card tables w/ BART police guarding them. (so much for the convenience of TVMs) At the time I thought that a solution would be to surcharge any large venue event a $ or two to compensate the transit agencies for the irregular users. In return the tix for the event would be flash passes to and from to encourage use..
    As to the Santa Clara facility, I went there w/ a friend to the “final Grateful Dead” show in June 2015. We took a regularly scheduled (and nearly empty) Capitol Corridor train from Berkeley right to the stadium. Unfortunately, when it came time to go home, VTA did a mediocre job of lining up buses to take us to Fremont BART–Cap Corridor had made zero effort either to market using CC trains to arrive or running a post event special which they often do for sports events at that venue.

    The various transit agencies did little coordination, no outreach, and it was the usual slow milling to find the correct bus to board. Given that a couple of borrowed Caltrain sets could have been used to soak up several thousand of us if arranged for, another opporunity to showcase transit was missed.

  6. MB February 23, 2017 at 5:06 pm #

    Why was the stadium allowed to be built in such a transit hostile area?
    The trend has been to build sports stadiums in downtowns or inner city areas, and it seems weird SF of all places is going against this trend.

    • Al Dimond March 4, 2017 at 10:27 pm #

      Stadiums, especially football stadiums, are pretty lousy uses of urban land: they’re giant buildings that are empty the vast majority of the time. There are many better uses for SF’s limited land. It’s similar to NYC in that way — the Giants and Jets play out in Jersey and belong there.

      True downtown stadiums are mostly built in declined cities looking to do some ’60s-style urban renewal on land hardly anyone wants. A lot of the newer “inner city” stadiums in growing cities are in industrial corridors. Even baseball stadiums, which can be a little smaller and are used about 10 times as often.

      Even most Caltrain station areas at least have enough urban potential that they shouldn’t be wasted on a football stadium. So there’s this back part of Santa Clara which was a pretty big wasteland to start with, and because of the insane size of modern stadiums plus the ludicrous security perimeter, even in this site they couldn’t manage to avoid shutting down the San Tomás Aquino Creek Trail during games. Imagine what would have to get shut down elsewhere in the Bay Area!

  7. Chris February 24, 2017 at 11:46 am #

    I think the point is that the people who built it thought it was transit friendly since it was near rail lines, but did not think about whether the transit was effective or not. That being said, I have taken Caltrain – VTA to Levi’s Stadium and found it a pleasant experience.

  8. Michelle DeRobertis February 25, 2017 at 1:31 am #

    Thanks for these comments. To address some of them: if you read the article you will learn that our two main points were:
    1. It is not that the location is a transit “desert”; it has much better transit service than the former Candlestick site, which was built in car-centric 1960’s . This is the 2010’s, when EIRs are required and an era when sustainability and climate change are supposed to be considered. The point is that given the regional nature of the fan base and the fact that there is a regional transit line, (BART and to a lesser extent Caltrain) why was a brand new stadium sited so far from these rail lines which have much greater capacity and much greater service area? The fact that just one of the transit agencies (VTA) is experiencing a $3 million a year deficit to provide service to the site should be evidence itself that the site was not suited for such a land use. (That doesn’t include the deficit of Caltrain and Amtrak/Capital Corridor.)

    2. Given that it was a billion dollar project generating hundreds of millions of dollars per year, why were no funds allocated to help fund the increase in capital and operating costs needed to adequately serve the site with transit? And why didn’t the EIR and the transportation analysis identify these costs? Why are taxpayers paying the deficit instead of the multimillionaire team owners?
    Yes, there theoretically could be special trains waiting on the Amtrak train line; that would help a bit, but doesn’t change the fact that it is far from both Caltrain and BART. But where is the money going to come from? Fact of life: Public transit runs at a deficit. More service means more deficit. Special event, irregular transit service costs even more. With $40- $200 parking spaces, $13 dollar beers and $6 for a bottle of water, don’t tell me there is no money to give to the transit agencies.

  9. R. W. Rynerson February 26, 2017 at 11:47 pm #

    Denver’s RTD has extensive experience with event crowds on light rail, but sees it as a relief in relation to the special bus operations that it has replaced. It is aided by having a centrally located stadium, a centrally located indoor arena and a centrally located baseball field. Occasionally multiple events break at about the same time. Weeknight games also present challenges. Die hard fans do not understand why the attention given to commuters.

    Video of a weeknight game movement:

    Video of the take-away from a downtown parade with a temporary terminal.

    Video of the (sleepy) stadium station without fans.

    Video critical of lack of wayfinding.

    Some of the crowd issues and control set-up shown would apply for any stadium location.

  10. Dorian February 27, 2017 at 1:42 am #

    I was thinking… Santa Clara County is suited for good transit, provided that development is encouraged to be more dense and less sprawling (This is already starting to happen). The Airport flight path limits the height of buildings in Downtown San Jose, implying that perhaps one day the suburbs or outer parts of San Jose could be denser than downtown, which makes for an efficient transportation system. The relatively small size of the Santa Clara Valley also makes travel patterns more predictable and it could therefore be easier to match travel demand. That’s not much to go on, but maybe at some point the city planners will shift their attitude away from downtown. Currently, the biggest problem for planners is that buildings in downtown can’t be real skyscrapers, but the urban villages I hope are a big step towards changing the entire way we think about development and the future of transportation.

    • Dorian February 27, 2017 at 1:45 am #

      Hopefully Levi’s Stadium is the start of dense decentralized walkable and transit-friendly communities. On its own it looks like a failure, but maybe in a decade or two that will change.