Environmental Science Associates built a database to estimate where fans would travel to KeyArena from on the day of a weekday NBA game. They did so to get a better sense of how parking and transportation strategies might improve traffic congestion.
Inside sports business
Ever since the decision to renovate KeyArena for NBA and NHL use was announced, debate has raged over how people will get there.
Conversations around transportation and parking have occurred regarding where the majority of fans headed to the arena would come from. And whether a newly renovated arena could attract enough fans to the congested Uptown neighborhood to make it worth the $600 million investment.
We already have answers about whether fans would want to go: 33,000 season-ticket deposits taken for the NHL in 36 hours spoke loud and clear. And now, with the release last week of a state-mandated draft environmental impact statement (EIS) on the renovation, we have some initial sense of where those fans might come from.
The Seattle-based Environmental Science Associates firm, which prepared the EIS, built a database to estimate where fans would travel to KeyArena from on the day of a weekday NBA game. They did this to get a better sense of how parking and transportation strategies might improve traffic congestion.
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The results gathered are assumed to be similar to a typical NHL crowd. Which is important, because an NHL expansion team is expected to begin play at KeyArena by October 2020.
Here’s what the EIS found: 12.5 percent of fans would travel from downtown and centrally located neighborhoods such as Uptown, Westlake, South Lake Union, Capitol Hill, Belltown, Magnolia and Queen Anne.
More would come from more far-flung city neighborhoods and adjacent suburbs. The biggest portion — 27.5 percent — would be from Eastside communities Bellevue, Mercer Island, Kirkland, Redmond, Sammamish and Issaquah.
But what might surprise is the next-biggest block — 24 percent — hails from communities to the north. This includes some within city limits, such as Ballard and Crown Hill, but also others farther out such as Everett, Shoreline, Kenmore and Bothell.
Only 13 percent of fans are expected from nearby communities to the south, including West Seattle, South Seattle, Renton, Tukwila and Kent.
The remaining 23 percent are lumped into one group as from “other,” more remote places in all directions such as Vancouver, B.C., Olympia, Kitsap County and Tacoma.
John Shaw, a project manager coordinating the EIS for the City of Seattle, said there was little need to break the “other” 23 percent of remote travelers down by specific community because “we would assume that everybody coming from that far away was all using a vehicle.”
In other words, it’s the 77 percent of fans from Seattle and nearby the EIS most cares about, because there’s still a chance to change their travel habits if public transit improves.
The study analyzed ZIP codes of where tickets were purchased to two widely attended sports events at KeyArena. The first was a Gonzaga-Tennessee men’s college-basketball game from 2015 attended by 16,770 people and the second a sold-out charity tennis match last April watched by 17,459.
The data were weighted with a two-thirds emphasis toward the basketball game because it’s the same sport as the NBA. But the tennis data were used for a third of the study because the affluent nature of those attending was felt to more closely resemble typical NBA season-ticket holders compared with a college-basketball crowd.
Researchers eliminated data from tickets purchased in Spokane — assuming them to be one-off Gonzaga fans unlikely to make day trips to Seattle for NBA games. They also eliminated out-of-state purchases with the exception of Vancouver, B.C., figuring fans beyond Washington would fly in and overnight in hotels near the arena.
What do the results tell us?
For one, that planned light-rail extensions from northern and eastern communities within five years could improve traffic congestion, because that’s where the biggest blocks of fans would come from.
And with that, an immediate concern should be revamping the Seattle Center Monorail into a more workable transfer point from the Westlake light-rail station. The EIS predicts fans could wait 20 minutes for a monorail car to travel the final two minutes between Westlake and KeyArena within the one-hour pregame and postgame periods.
That’s just too much if you want more people to use it.
Right now, the average monorail wait is 10 minutes under less-strained conditions. Keeping, or even improving, that wait once the NHL arrives could help make the streets surrounding KeyArena less traffic clogged.
The EIS expects 63 percent of KeyArena patrons would travel in private vehicles for that October 2020 NHL debut. But once a light-rail stop is added outside KeyArena in 2035, the EIS expects private-vehicle travel would drop to 35 percent.
How do we start that improvement sooner? Well, a Northgate Link extension of light rail is expected by 2021, just a year after the NHL team is to begin play.
Many fans traveling from the north will be able to board light rail at Northgate and make it to Westlake station within 14 minutes.
If you limit their monorail wait to 10 minutes at worst, that’s 26 minutes from Northgate to the arena’s doorstep.
Similarly, an East Link light-rail extension from Mercer Island, Bellevue and Redmond to downtown is coming by 2023.
The ride from downtown Bellevue to Westlake station will take about 26 minutes, meaning about 38 minutes to the arena if the monorail wait doesn’t exceed 10 minutes.
For those looking to push city planners to do more, that’s a good place to start.
The EIS provided an idea of where fans would come from. And we know better light rail soon will be afforded a big percentage of them.
But unless that final monorail connection improves, this amounts to empty data gathering. And a wasted opportunity to put a dent in traffic solutions everybody wants.