Safety & Security During Mega-Events

April 27, 2017
Cleveland, Chicago pull out all the stops for rare public demand with sports celebrations

Painted maniacs atop buses, one-off novelty tickets, jerseys over uniforms and thousands of passengers chanting in the station: transit officials let excitement makes its way into the packed plans for that rare moment when celebrating a hometown sports championship. 

“People were in such a positive mood that it all became part of the experience,” said Joe Calabrese, CEO, Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority, the line that serves the 2016 NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers.

Any major gathering brings transportation challenges. Sports championship celebrations carry a twist of joyous timing. If and when your team wins it all is followed by a short window in which to plan for a crush of exuberant passengers, many of them riding rail and bus lines to unfamiliar terrain. Outside of political rallies in Washington, D.C., there are few other spectacles that rely so heavily on public transit, so suddenly, like a sports championship rally and parade.

Chicago has witnessed its share of winners, but until 2016 there was a 108-year championship drought for its Cubs. The weeks leading up to the win were filled with massive spikes in ridership to and from the neighborhood diamond, Wrigley Field, some of the highest in Chicago Transit Authority history. For the championship parade from the ballpark to a rally downtown, 1.9 million people rode the CTA train or bus, the highest rail day ever and the second-highest passenger day behind a Fourth of July festival in 2008.

Leading up to the Cubs big win, CTA officials had been in contact with the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications, which syncs fire officials, the mayor’s office and the Chicago Police Department, CTA’s main security agent. Once the Cubs won, CTA had less than 48-hours to finalize the parade route with emergency officials and the team. Two things in their favor: the location of rail lines and the hockey team on the west side of town.

Seven of the eight rail lines go through the downtown Loop, providing access for passengers to much of the Cubs parade plans. And three times in recent years, the Chicago Blackhawks have taken the Stanley Cup, the NHL’s top prize and one that brought hundreds of thousands of fans into the city to rejoice.

On the day of, rail had easy passage – and packed cars – between the Addison Red Line stop near Wrigley Field and the “sea of people” downtown in Grant Park. Transit officials re-routed buses until downtown streets weren’t passable. Others joined the fray, looking over stations, helping people with that lost look in their eyes and troubleshooting the occasional out-of-order elevator. It was extra work all around, particularly for the operators, though also a chance for CTA to show pride in its system, said Elsa Gutierrez, CTA G.M. of Service Planning and Traffic Engineering.

“It’s festive. Everyone is in a good mood. You get overtime. Even if you’re out there telling people how to get to and from, you’re now also part of people high-fiving,” Gutierrez said.

The team the Cubs beat in bombastic, extra innings fashion was the Cleveland Indians. While down about that loss, Cleveland had a few months prior snapped a 57-year championship dry-spell when its Cavaliers won basketball’s top trophy in epic, upset fashion.

Cleveland’s RTA didn’t have any crosstown sports baseline with which to compare attendance like in Chicago. But they had established a special transit corridor for the Republican National Convention in July, an event primarily held in the same arena where the Cavaliers play. As the Cavs got closer to their title game, Calabrese said he and his team went back to that RNC plan for a potential championship celebration.

By 5:30 a.m. the day of the afternoon parade, there were already lines at one rail line. Calabrese was there to do a TV interview, a key communications resource along with email alerts to let the public know about easy and express routes available into downtown Cleveland. At the center of Cleveland, streets were carefully blocked but for about 12 rubber-tire trolleys that acted as people movers through the interior corridor of the downtown. On one rail line connecting downtown and the airport, some riders paid premiums to park just to catch a ride, and others hopped on the outbound train to be able to nab a seat going the other way. Extra cars were added into the day. Transit police had assistance from federal security, though Calabrese remarked on the jubilant vibe of the parade day. Many of the RTA’s 1,400 operators rocked Cavs and LeBron James jerseys. Special Cavs-themed tickets were printed for the day. Overtime and extra routes offset any grand revenues for the agency, according to Calabrese and transit officials.

In all, more than 500,000 people swarmed Cleveland, far surpassing its typical high mark from the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade. The transit day started early for many and lasted into the evening, as revelers slowed the parade hours behind schedule. For transit operators, that also meant the infrequent bus-top riders and yanked-on windshield wipers, all in good fun.

“The fans were in a phenomenal mood. I hope we have another one this year,” Calabrese said.

About the Author

Justin Kern

Justin Kern is a writer and nonprofit marketing manager who lives in Milwaukee with his wife and cats.