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Transportation planning strategies for the FIFA World Cup and major events

March 28, 2024

By Graeme Masterton and Stephen Oliver

Keys to planning a once-in-a-lifetime sporting event and not losing sight of the fan experience

Congratulations, you’re hosting the 2026 FIFA World Cup—is your transportation planning ready for it? Most cities and venues have a strong understanding of what it’s like to hold major events—from major league games, the Super Bowl, College Bowl games, other sporting events, major concerts, and more. But not all big events are the same. As we approach the 2026 FIFA World Cup in North America, transportation planning—or mobility planning—needs to get underway now to make sure cities and venues understand the nuances to address when hosting the world’s biggest sports tournament.

“We’ve done major event planning, so this is business as usual.” That’s a common phrase our team of transportation planners hears from cities or venue operators when discussing the client’s plan around its transportation infrastructure and holding a major event. Regardless of any city’s experience, the FIFA World Cup is far from “business as usual.” We must meet FIFA fans and operations with a very specific and detailed approach, much of which will be very new to North American cities.

Our team worked with the National Football League to conduct a four-year transportation audit, analysis, and best practices to improve the fan travel experience at every NFL stadium in the US.

There are several key items to account for when hosting an event like the FIFA World Cup. We’re not talking about a single day or weekend—this is a multi-week global event. But, unlike the Olympics, it does not completely take over a city. The goal is to make sure the game-day experience is a positive one for those taking in the World Cup—and those who aren’t.

The 2022 FIFA World Cup had a total attendance of 3,404,252 spectators, ranking as the third-highest attended FIFA World Cup in history. The average overall attendance capacity was 96.3 percent. The record number of fans—more than 3.5 million—was in the US in 1994. With these numbers in mind, it’s safe to assume the 2026 World Cup games will draw significant numbers of spectators to North America. Below, we detail some of the key steps host cities should consider when kicking off their transportation planning efforts and why it is critical host cities should start mobility planning now.

Procure the proper partners and consultants

First, it’s critical to understand the help your city and venue needs externally, especially to address travel demand and unique visitor profiles. In most cases, smaller traffic consulting firms likely won’t have the experience necessary to support an event the size of the FIFA World Cup. While many may have experience with major events, as detailed above, procuring the right support from the right consultants will go a long way in properly planning for hosting an event on this scale. Identifying firms with extensive experience within travel operations, bus systems, on-ground transit hubs at major events, parking, and traffic modeling are all key factors to look for.

Seek experts with vast expertise and knowledge of international transit systems and habits. Your “normal” event-goers for standard events have likely been to the venue and know the routine. They know where to park, how to catch transit, and where to find the Uber and Lyft pick-up and drop-offs. Some may need some direction, but in general, it’s a familiar routine for at least one person traveling within a party to the venue. Understanding how transit and traffic planning needs to change for a much larger, more international crowd of fans is essential to ensuring smooth operations.

It will likely take more than a single consultant. You need a team or consortium on your side to help plan for your specific reality and every eventuality. This will take some time—so start now. Look for reputable firms with the kind of experience you need or certifications like the SAFETY Act Designation from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Don’t just rely on your usual traffic engineering firm to provide the answers you need.

While it might seem like the city stops when an event like the FIFA World Cup comes to town, there will be other major events happening at the same time.

Identify which government agencies you have at your disposal

Take stock of all the government entities and agencies that might need to be involved in your transportation and mobility planning efforts. No one ever gets the full list right on the first attempt, so plan to add more partners and collaborate across organizations.

Starting with the list of who to involve, we can look at different levels of government—federal, state (or provincial), and municipal. There may be regional or county governments to include as well. Each will have its transportation agencies, along with public safety or emergency services that need to be included. Then you have your private venues, community and business associations, and even other sports teams who may be active during the tournament.

Next, it will be important to understand who owns what. Each agency has its wheelhouse, but who is leading, who is contributing, and what are the planned outcomes? City staff might be at the center of it all, or perhaps a sports authority will run point on everything. It’s important to coordinate procurement among the agencies as well; that means planning any RFP releases.

Transportation planning is for more than the people with tickets. Stantec worked with Louisiana State University to document and plan for having up to 200,000 people traveling on game day, double the 100,000-stadium capacity using limited streets.

And then there is FIFA itself, which has its own rules and expectations for planning. Most North American cities have not had a lot of experience working with FIFA, so having a consultant on your team who does is an important step to take.

Overall, get started early, communicate often, and be flexible. There will be a lot of curveballs along the way, but getting the right team in place and prepared will make all the difference in the success of the event.

Your city should keep operating during a major event

While it might seem like the city stops when an event like the FIFA World Cup comes to town, there will be other major events happening at the same time. The finals for the FIFA World Cup are set for July 19, 2026—this is in the heart of the Major League Baseball season—and all the cities in the US and Canada (except Vancouver) have MLB Teams. Qualifying rounds will take place in the months prior, which is typically when the National Basketball Association hosts its playoffs and the NBA Finals. Not to mention the Stanley Cup Finals if your home team is lucky enough to make it!

Understanding how your city will integrate FIFA matchups into these regular big events will be a major challenge. You aren’t just planning for the hundreds of thousands of FIFA fans, you’re also planning for the hundreds of thousands of fans participating in normal major events as they normally would in any given year.

Think about how your planning will affect fan and game day experience

Events like the FIFA World Cup games last at least a month. It’s even longer if the city is hosting playoffs. Most of the people coming to the venue from around the world will likely never have been to your city or even to your country—and they could be there for a while. These visitors will bring a passion for “football” and their nation that you will not have witnessed. They will gather in hordes to sing, dance, and revel in their country and their hopes for the tournament. Official and unofficial fan sites will be occupied constantly over weeks. Many will come without tickets just to be part of the atmosphere. They may not speak English. They may not have cars and will rely on public transit, rideshare, or taxis. This means that transportation planning requires significant organization, sometimes well beyond the capabilities of a venue if it relies purely on drive-and-park as the solution. This is only one part of the challenge. 

Major event planning—like for the National Football League—requires focusing on which government agencies are part of the process.

The other challenge is less obvious but just as complicated. There are other groups that require sophisticated, unique transport systems to meet their needs. This may be the players and coaches, the world media that will descend looking for any story worth telling, VIPs and VVIPs, or even world leaders and their entourages. They will attend games, practice sessions, dinners, and gatherings in protected transport systems that require physical barriers in some instances to make them safe. 

Depending on the city, this may require finding transit vehicles and operators to supplement the local transit system. It may require licensing arrangements to increase rideshare options. And that may lead to the creation of temporary infrastructure to allow the safe movement of fans and FIFA in the form of taxi/rideshare zones, transit interchanges, bike and scooter storage, temporary maintenance facilities for buses, large and restricted zones around venues and fan sites, and more. Regardless, accommodating all these different demographics and their unique transit requirements will require specific and well-thought-out transportation planning.

World events like FIFA are not going to be like a regular event that has been hosted multiple times. It is extraordinarily different and complex, requiring major event planning, and—if planned correctly—one of the greatest moments in a city’s history.

  • Graeme Masterton

    For the past 26 years, Graeme has focused on building an in-depth understanding of community transit needs and the psychology of using transit.

    Contact Graeme
  • Stephen Oliver

    An urban planner, project manager, and public engagement specialist, Stephen promotes efficient movement in cities through the design of transit and multimodal projects.

    Contact Stephen
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