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1. Introduction

As the United States becomes an ever-more leisure-oriented society, special events and travel to them become a more important aspect of our lives – whether urban, suburban, or rural. These events are counted among the benefits of living in or near an urban area and are important to the prestige of individual cities. However, the increased traffic caused by these events not only intersects with and extends the rush hour, but often results in congestion and street closures on weekends and evenings. Planned special events are often more difficult for drivers, freight movers and transportation planners to work around than usual weekday traffic patterns. As the number of these events increases and multiple events occur simultaneously, the impacts escalate ever more rapidly.

Planned special events generate substantial revenues and incur large costs to private industry and government entities. However, little is known about the number of these events, their economic significance, or the impact they have on traffic congestion.

The diversity of planned special events is tremendous. Professional team sports such as baseball, basketball, hockey, and football are among the best known. Additionally, PSEs also include college versions of these sports, as well as a broad range of other professional sporting events such as auto racing, horse racing, golf, tennis, skating and niche events like tractor pulls, rodeos, dog races, and extreme sports. A variety of mainly non-professional individual sporting events, such as marathons, half-marathons, walks, wheelchair races, bike races, and boat races, are also included in this list. Additionally, a variety of shows, expositions, festivals, parades, circuses, protests, and religious events are a part of this mix.

Definition of a Planned Special Event

In 1988, the National Highway Institute defined a “special event” as an occurrence that “abnormally increases traffic demand,” unlike an accident, or construction and maintenance activities, which typically restrict the roadway capacity.2 According to the FHWA, PSEs include sporting events, concerts, festivals, and conventions at permanent multi-use venues (e.g., arenas, stadiums, racetracks, fairgrounds, amphitheaters and convention centers). They also include less frequent public events, such as parades, fireworks displays, bicycle races, sporting games, motorcycle rallies, seasonal festivals, and milestone celebrations at temporary venues.3

The term planned special event is used to describe these activities because their locations and times of occurrence are known and their associated operational needs can be anticipated and managed in advance. Emergencies, such as a severe weather event or other major catastrophe, represent special events that can induce extreme traffic demand under evacuation conditions.

However, these events occur at random and with little or no advance warning, in contrast to the characteristics of planned special events

A planned special event creates an increase in travel demand and may require road closures to stage the event. Planned special events generate trips, thus affecting overall transportation system operations. This includes freeway operations, arterial and other street operations, transit operations, and pedestrian flow. Unlike roadway construction activities or traffic incidents that constrain travel within a single corridor, planned special events affect travel in all corridors serving the event venue.

Previous Studies

Previous planned special event work in which FHWA participated focused specifically on the transportation aspects of these events. The two main reports that focus on traffic management in relation to PSEs are 2003 NCHRP Synthesis 309: Transportation Planning and Management for Special Events4 and the FHWA's 2003 Managing Travel for Planned Special Events Handbook.5

Both reports focused on in-depth examinations of the various challenges posed by traffic associated with PSEs and possible solutions. The Managing Travel for Planned Special Events Handbook addresses the unique and diverse set of challenges to stakeholders charged with maintaining transportation system safety, mobility, and reliability. Some of the main challenges identified in PSE event planning include the need to:

  • Manage intense travel demand
  • Mitigate potential capacity constraints
  • Influence the personal economic utility associated with various travel choices
  • Accommodate heavy pedestrian flow

The NCHRP synthesis identified "Regional Planning and Coordination" and "Event-Specific Travel Management" issues regarding PSEs. "Event-Specific Travel Management" issues require the following types of responses:

  • Program planning that encompasses both advance planning activities completed months prior to a single, target event and activities related to a series of future planned special events.
  • Event operations planning that involves advance planning and resource coordination activities conducted for a specific planned special event.
  • Implementation activities that concern strategizing traffic management plan deployment in addition to conducting necessary equipment testing and personnel training activities.
  • Day-of-event activities that refer to the daily implementation of the traffic management plan in addition to traffic monitoring.
  • Post-event activities that cover the evaluation of local and regional transportation operations based on stakeholder debriefings and an analysis of traffic data collected during the day-of-event.

The only comprehensive data covering the special events sector was collected as part of the 2002 Economic Census published by the US Census Bureau.6 This data was collected according to industries as defined in the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS). Much of the PSE economic activity is contained in NAICS 711 Performing Arts, Spectator Sports, & Related Industries. Some PSEs of interest to this study also may be classified in two other NAICS categories: NAICS 713, (Amusement, Gambling, and Recreational Industries), and NAICS 6113 (Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools), as well as elsewhere.

The Census Bureau lists 110,313 establishments in the NAICS 711 and 713 classifications, which generate $141.9 billion in annual revenue and employ 1.8 million workers. Unfortunately, the Census data are not very useful for determining the number and size of special events. Many of the establishments in arts and entertainment do not host large events, and many types of large events, such as college sporting events and protests, are outside the data in the Census reports. However, the 2002 Census estimates of $141.9 billion in product line revenue for all of arts, entertainment, and recreation and $58.3 billion for performing arts, spectator sports, and related industries provide a starting point for estimating the economic significance of PSEs.

Purpose of the Study

The purpose of this study is to investigate the economic and congestion effects of large planned special events (PSEs) on a national level. A clearer understanding of the scale of PSEs and their economic influence is essential to better understand and advocate for the important role that transportation planning can and should play in managing the traffic logistics of these events. Currently, no comprehensive, integrated, and publicly available information exists on PSEs.

Given the transportation aspects of planned special events identified in previous studies, the purpose of this report is to delineate where planned special events fit within the national economy and to establish the magnitude of this sector. Particular attention is warranted to both the dollar value and number of events held annually. Once the total economic value of planned special events to the national economy is understood, the important role that transportation must play in managing the transportation aspects of these events can be better appreciated.

Thus, this study attempts for the first time to apply a systematic approach to collecting and estimating data on the size and frequency of large PSEs. As previously stated, due to lack of data and/or data dispersion, this study made extensive efforts to collect information from secondary sources, event organizers, event venue managers, and government officials.

Organization of the Report

This report aims to answer four questions: What are PSEs? Why study them? What information on PSEs is currently available, and what more is still needed?

  • To begin, the Study Methodology section defines and categorizes PSEs and then discusses the methods employed in this report to collect data, choose case studies, analyze the case study data and estimate the traffic impact of PSEs.
  • Next, the Detroit, MI; Portland, OR; El Paso, TX; and Columbia, SC case studies are presented. These case studies allow the reader to develop a deeper understanding of the role of special events in each of these cities: their types, frequency, location, and average attendance.
  • The National Estimates section details the development of the first-known national estimate of the extent and magnitude of PSEs. The section details the method by which national macro data was collected and then combined with micro case study data, resulting in comprehensive estimates of the economic and traffic effects of PSEs.
  • The Conclusions and Recommendations section summarizes the findings of the report and provides recommendations to public officials, transportation planners, and event organizers. This section also identifies areas of research that are still needed to advance the field of PSE management policy and planning.
  • Lastly, the Appendix contains a discussion of traffic and congestion mitigation options for city planners and other officials working to plan for and manage PSEs. It also provides users with the means to estimate the extent and magnitude of PSEs in an area of interest.

2 Carson, Jodi and Ryan Bylsma, “2003 NCHRP Synthesis 309: Transportation Planning and Management for Special Events,”

3 Federal Highway Administration, “Managing Travel for Planned Special Events Handbook,” Final Report, September 2003,

4 Carson, Jodi and Ryan Bylsma, “2003 NCHRP Synthesis 309: Transportation Planning and Management for Special Events,”

5 Federal Highway Administration, “Managing Travel for Planned Special Events,” Final Report, September 2003,

6 U.S. Census Bureau, “2002 Economic Census: Miscellaneous Subjects,”

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