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Avoiding traffic trouble: Planning for large events

September 18, 2017

Visual storytelling can help large events with extensive road closures run smoothly without creating traffic congestion

During the last week of July, the streets of downtown Ottawa transformed into a stage for La Machine, an internationally acclaimed urban theatre performance from Nantes, France. La Machine featured a giant, mechanized dragon (Long Ma) and spider (Kumo) roaming the streets of Ottawa. As Long Ma and Kumo traversed the streets, tens of thousands of people followed. The four-day performance, an Ottawa 2017 Signature Event, left a lasting impression on Ottawa and allowed visitors and residents alike to reimagine streets as a place to experience theatre, not just a way to commute.

But it takes a lot of planning to make sure large scale events, like La Machine, flow smoothly.

As a transportation engineer, I was responsible for ensuring Long Ma and Kumo could travel through Ottawa’s streets. When you have a giant dragon and spider stalking the streets, you must get beyond the spectacle and think of the practical. Ask yourself: Who needs to know where this giant street performance is going, and what is the best way to help them understand this? We used project storytelling as a tool to ensure event organizers understood how a major event—and its resulting traffic—would flow.

Like all events of this nature, acquiring approvals from agencies and stakeholders requires a certain level of trust. From my perspective, if it weren’t for everyone who had a stake in making La Machine happen trusting one another, this event would not have been as successful as it was. And, if it weren’t for effective communication between stakeholders, trust would not have been built. This link between communication and trust applies to all events.

Long Ma roams Wellington Street in front of Canada's Parliament Buildings in Ottawa, Ontario, as part of the La Machine performance celebrating Canada's 150th birthday in 2017. 

So, how can you deliberately build a foundation that encourages communication and trust? Use a visual plan that illustrates the complex movements of your event in time and space. 

In the case of La Machine, this visual document provided a step-by-step overview of the production sequencing from a traffic-management perspective. The plan identified the anticipated locations of Long Ma and Kumo based on the production schedule and documented the extent and timing of rolling road closures, traffic management measures, and resource requirements needed to support the event in a safe manner, all while minimizing traffic disruptions.

As a visual document, the Traffic Management Plan told the story of La Machine from a traffic and crowd management point of view. The document illustrated the journeys of Long Ma and Kumo around Ottawa—capturing where they would be, at what time, and what that meant for everyone who needed to know where they were going. So, in practice, this document built trust.

Having a document like this in-hand means city departments and jurisdictional stakeholders can plan and prepare. In the case of La Machine, this meant key national institutions (like Parliament Hill, the National Art Gallery, and the Supreme Court of Canada) and emergency services could coordinate plans based on their specific requirements. More important, they could coordinate with the peace of mind that everybody is referencing the same document/information.

Kumo posing for photos in front of the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa, Ontario. 

Since this is a visual document, I wanted to provide a glimpse into what the plan looked like. I’ve included an animation that captures the paths Long Ma and Kumo took for one of the main performance days. The final plan overlays many other elements, such as resources and traffic flow. This reproduction gives an idea of the level of detail needed to plan and make decisions for a large-scale event like La Machine. 

A visual roadmap, much like this, ensures that all stakeholders and partners are marching to the same drummer. From this perspective, visual simplicity—the concept of less is more—is key to making an event plan intuitive and adaptable to different audiences. Developing a single plan aids in the approval process, provides a guidebook for meetings, and is a useful tool for planning resources and “Game Day” logistics. This form of planning and dynamic storytelling can be adapted to other complex major events.

When you simplify a complex problem (how will a large event impact traffic congestion?) into an intuitive, visual format that can be understood by different audiences, you develop a tool that is easy to use. You quickly create a visual roadmap that provides utility, encourages communication, and builds trust. And, at least in this case, lets a dragon and spider rule the city. 

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