2017 Inauguration & Women’s March – Planning & Outcomes

by Natalie Jones-Best

Washington, D.C., hosts thousands of special events each year, ranging in size and complexity. For such events, the District of Columbia’s Department of Transportation (DDOT) serves as the lead agency for transportation management and support. Although many of these events are planned activities for which the district and its local, regional, and federal stakeholder partners have advance notice for planning purposes, the nation’s capital is also home to many unplanned First Amendment events, which provide less notice and are less defined with respect to the planning and support required. The 2017 presidential inauguration and subsequent Women’s March highlight the differences in planning efforts and outcomes for these two types of events.

Natalie Jones-Best headshotOne unplanned First Amendment event, the 2017 Women’s March on Washington, illustrates how communities and planning entities can be at a disadvantage by the size and complexity of events where traditional leading indicators provide limited insights for pre-operational planning. The Women’s March took place one day after the 2017 presidential inauguration. Both events revealed the drastic difference between a planned event and an unplanned event that evolves through a grassroots approach supported by social media and word of mouth. With the latter event, one must ask whether this is the new norm for special events.

Guiding Principles for Inaugural Events

DDOT’s inaugural planning efforts have morphed over the years into a somewhat routine planning effort, where roles and responsibilities fluctuate between traditional and nontraditional transportation management tasks. This successful process relies on best practices employed in past events, and lessons learned through after-action reports that allow DDOT to leverage existing frameworks and work with a few key guiding principles in mind for its operations plan.

DDOT recognizes that many event attendees are not familiar with the district landscape. In addition, many of the support personnel from other states are unfamiliar with the district. To assist, DDOT works with its partners to identify appropriate walking routes through wayfinding signage, maps, and public communication channels. The walking routes are part of an overall effort to provide the public with modal alternatives that discourage the use of personal automobiles when high attendance numbers and many parts of the transportation network in the district and surrounding areas are impacted by increased traffic congestion and route closures. For the 2017 inaugural event, the district developed a pre-event “Don’t Even Think about Driving” advertising campaign.

For this campaign, the district provides a turnkey charter bus system that provides registration, vehicle tracking, and parking management of charter buses. Additionally, the district encourages the use of public transportation, including Metrorail and Metrobus, Streetcar, Circulator, Amtrak, and commuter rail, all of which run enhanced schedules for inaugurations. For the most recent inauguration, DDOT and the District Department of For-Hire Vehicles designated temporary taxi stands and coordinated with transportation network companies such as Lyft, Uber, and Via to implement geofencing technology for identified passenger drop-off and pick-up areas close to events, but away from the most congested areas. DDOT also provided significant support for bicycles during this most recent event by establishing valet bike parking for personal bikes and bike corrals for Capital Bikeshare users.

Variables to Consider in Planning

In contrast to the static planning tasks, the district has formulated assumptions for variables using past data and long-term forecasts. For the presidential inauguration, these variables range from attendance forecasting early in the planning process – resulting in early quantifying of resources and staffing – to involvement of special interest groups, January weather, vehicle access restrictions as determined by federal and local law enforcement entities, and potential security threat levels.

Critical to the planning process is quantifying inaugural attendance levels, which is the most critical variable. Attendance levels can vary significantly. They have a large impact on resource planning and logistics and are affected by many factors, such as whether the event is for a first or second presidential term. Traditionally, attendance is significantly higher for first-term inaugurations. There are significant transportation leading indicators that assist in forecasting attendance levels, including:

  • The number of charter bus parking permits issued;
  • Hotel bookings within the Washington, D.C., region; and
  • Intercity travel bookings (air, rail, bus).

Although methods exist to track projected attendance levels for planned events, and have proven reliable, more challenging is the prediction of attendance for large unplanned events like the Women’s March. The Women’s March evolved rather quickly, and saw significantly more spontaneous attendance.

For instance, the district uses RFK Stadium as its primary bus staging location for inaugural events, with a capacity of 1,300 spaces. Although there are other smaller, less formal staging areas in other parts of the district, there were 200 charter bus permits issued for RFK Stadium for the 2017 inauguration, whereas analysis confirmed 1,200 permits were obtained for the Women’s March (see Figure 1).

Number of Charter Bus Parking Permit Applications for RFK Stadium (Source: DDOT, 2017).

Fig. 1. Number of Charter Bus Parking Permit Applications for RFK Stadium (Source: DDOT, 2017).

The data in Figure 1, conjoined with DDOT’s staffing and resource data, are indicative of how both events were planned for regarding resource allocations. Due to attendance generally rising at inaugural events over the years, DDOT and other agencies had nearly 600 personnel deployed for roadway and pedestrian management, and as ambassadors in support of the inaugural events (see Figure 2). Forced to rely on known information about attendance for the Women’s March, and a scaled down area of coverage responsibility, about a third of the manpower deployed for the inauguration was requested in support of the Women’s March. It should be noted that, with a nonplanned event evolving from social media and a grassroots effort, traditional indicators are helpful, but do not provide a full operational picture. Consequently, staff levels were reduced based on the known and verifiable information available before the event.

DDOT Staffing and Other Resources (Source: DDOT, 2017).

Fig. 2. DDOT Staffing and Other Resources (Source: DDOT, 2017).

Estimated Crowd Size

Although there is no official estimate of crowd size from the National Park Service regarding the 2017 inauguration, crowd scientists at Manchester Metropolitan University in Britain analyzed photographs taken of the National Mall and vicinity. According to Manchester Metropolitan University, the crowd on the mall area the day of the Women’s March was more than three times the size of the crowd in the hour leading up to the 2017 inauguration speech.

DDOT’s response to the larger crowd for the Women’s March relied on real-time situational awareness, traffic cameras, and in-field support. Working with sister agencies such as the Metropolitan Police Department and the National Guard, DDOT was able to leverage and deploy its operations teams to provide vehicular and pedestrian traffic management for DDOT’s designated coverage area (see Figure 3).

Washington, D.C., Metro station during Women’s March (Source: Ted Eytan, 21 January 2017).
Fig. 3. Washington, D.C., Metro station during Women’s March (Source: Ted Eytan, 21 January 2017). 

Lessons Learned

Communities preparing for large-scale First Amendment events need to be as proactive as possible in determining a transportation management strategy that plans for the unknown and unpredictable. In response to the rise in the number of such events, the district has developed scalable event plans to help with resource deployment. Additionally, communities and special event stakeholders need to closely monitor traditional predictors of attendance and forms of modal access attendees use to reach events, as well as new nontraditional predictors. Traditional metrics like hotel bookings and intercity travel bookings are a starting point, but alternative lodging booking sites such as Airbnb must be factored in some way. Communities must also consider new forms of travel like Uber and Lyft, which provide useful data, in addition to the analysis and monitoring of trending subjects on social media sites that include Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

Although 2017 may prove to be an outlier given the confluence of historic events associated with the two-day period, the experience provides tremendous insight for communities that must now prepare for the growing number of spontaneous First Amendment demonstrations.

Natalie Jones-Best currently serves as the emergency preparedness and risk manager for the District of Columbia’s Department of Transportation (DDOT). In her position, she is responsible for managing the transportation emergency responses coordinated under the District of Columbia Emergency Response Plan and overseeing all aspects of DDOT’s Emergency Program. During her tenure with DDOT, she has also served as a transportation specialist with DDOT’s Office of Mass Transit, working on such issues as light rail development and transit planning, as well as overseeing the department’s Federal Grant Program. Prior to joining the district government, she served as an administrative manager with Ryder/ATE, formerly a national transit contracting company and subsidiary of the Ryder Corporation. Her 20-year transportation career has also included serving as a consultant conducting triennial reviews for the Federal Transit Administration and working on a robust transit bus study for the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority. She received her undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Virginia, in English and Urban Planning, respectively.