photo: Dolphin Stadium in Miami in 2008
Surrounded by a sea of parking lots, fans make their way into Dolphin Stadium in Miami before an NFL game in 2008. Doug Benc/Getty Images

Hate Stadium Parking and Game-Day Traffic? An Idea.

What if every seat at major sporting events came with free bus, train, and subway tickets? It’s called “transit validation,” and it can reduce traffic, pollution, and costs.

Of the 64,000 football fans set to descend on Miami Gardens this Super Bowl Sunday, relatively few will be coming by public transit. And no wonder: Hard Rock Stadium, where the San Francisco 49ers will face off against the Kansas City Chiefs, has limited bus and no direct rail connections to Miami or Fort Lauderdale, and it’s surrounded by 140 acres of parking lots, some so remote that a new gondola is under construction to ferry ticketholders to the main entrance. Horrendous vehicle back-ups throughout Miami-Dade County are anticipated for the biggest sporting event of the year.

Game-day congestion is part of football tradition, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Enter the concept of “transit validation,” in which sporting venues contract with public transit operators so that all ticket holders can ride buses and trains free on game days. Transit validation increases transit ridership, reduces traffic congestion, saves energy, reduces pollution and carbon emissions, and costs very little.

For example, when Seattle’s 72,000-seat Husky Stadium arranged fare-free public transit on game days, the share of ticket holders arriving by transit increased from 4 percent to 21 percent after the program began in 1984. Stadiums in Ottawa, Phoenix, and Salt Lake City have similar fare-free transit programs. Many event sites in Europe also include free transit in the prices of all tickets.

San Francisco’s newest sports venue is probably the country’s premiere transit validator. In 2019 the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency developed a “transit bundling” program for Chase Center, the 18,000-seat, $1.4 billion arena built for the Golden State Warriors. Event tickets serve as transit passes for all patrons, and Chase Center pays for the transit rides on SFTMA buses and rail lines. “We want people to take public transit to Chase Center, so we’re making it affordable and easy to do so,” Mayor London Breed stated at the time. “This breakthrough agreement demonstrates the commitment by both the City and Chase Center to get people out of their cars so everyone can easily get to games and concerts.”     

Bundling transit rides with game tickets means that each ticket serves as a transit pass on the game day. San Francisco charges $5 for a conventional day pass, but Chase Center pays the city a “transit service fee” of only $1.46 per ticket to offer fare-free transit for everyone. The fee is low because many ticket holders don’t ride transit, and the Center pays only for the actual transit rides. In effect, Chase Center validates its ticket holders’ transit fares.

There are a host of related potential benefits, for both team owners and the community at large. By drawing those who don’t want to drive to the stadium or who don’t own a car, teams could expand their fanbase and build a larger and more diverse crowd. The resulting increase in ticket demand could help to pay for the transit subsidy. Because many spectators drink at games, validated transit may help reduce drunk driving on the way home, too. Bundling transit passes into ticket prices could also provide a reliable new revenue stream for the transportation agency; to serve new riders, San Francisco has added express bus service to the Chase Center before and after each event.

Considering the tiny cost of transit validation compared to the price of almost any ticket for almost any major sports event, it’s hard to argue that this would be a major burden for team or stadium owners. Validating transit rides is also far cheaper than building parking lots or garages for occasional game-day drivers.

Bundled transit also works well in other circumstances. For example, many universities contract with public transit agencies to offer fare-free rides for all students. When UCLA began to offer fare-free transit, bus ridership to campus rose 56 percent and solo driving fell 20 percent during the first year of the program. More than 1,000 solo drivers gave up their parking spaces.

Theaters, concert halls, museums, and other venues may also climb on the bundled-fare bandwagon. Airlines could include free transit to the airport in flight tickets. Amusement parks could include free transit in admission prices. The 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles could include free transit in the tickets for all events. (It’s worth remembering how L.A. assembled a forward-thinking bus-based transportation scheme for the 1984 Summer Olympics that succeeded in getting one out of every five spectators to their venue seats aboard a city bus.)

As a condition for planning permission, most cities require developers to mitigate the traffic congestion their projects will cause. If cities require developers to validate transit as part of their traffic-control plans, transit validation may begin to rival (or perhaps supplant) parking validation. The results may convince us that we’ve been validating the wrong thing for decades.

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