28 Years Ago This Week: The World Returns For Los Angeles’ Gold Medal Performance In Olympic Traffic Relief

Only four cities have hosted the modern Olympic Games more than once.

When the world returned to Los Angeles in 1984, fifty-two years after its inaugural Games, the Olympics had changed:  140 nations were represented, compared to 37 in 1932.

Even more so, the city and region were far different than a half-century prior when Los Angeles successfully welcomed the world and transported them to and from the Xth Olympiad in 1932.

The city population had grown from approximately 1.2 million to around 3.2 million, with more than twelve million in the metropolitan region.

And while Los Angeles had already been known in 1932 for its beautiful climate and as the center of the motion picture industry, by the 1980s it was also world-famous for something else — its traffic.

Before the Games were even awarded, transportation became a primary concern regarding the viability of (let alone the success of) the games.

Los Angeles’ bus-only transit system peaked in the mid-1980s, but 550 more buses would be required to transport 40% of all Olympics spectators (Click to enlarge)

The 1984 Summer Olympics marked the first Summer Games since 1960 in Rome where a large city was not served by a regional rail system.

In pre-freeway 1932, the city was served by a network of Los Angeles Railway streetcars and interurban Pacific Electric rail lines.

That system was completely dismanted by 1963.

By the 1980s, many wondered how could Los Angeles, known for its world-class congestion, possibly move all parties involved, including an estimated 7 million spectators, to and from far-flung venues without impacting (or being impacted by) everyday commuters?

Caltrans had estimated that Olympics-related traffic would peak at 10% higher than normal during the 16-day competition period.

The entire transportation system would rely on buses.  A lot of them.


Planning began immediately after the Games were awarded to Los Angeles.

Extensive planning led to organized bus boarding after events

A year and a half before the Opening Ceremonies, the Los Angeles Herald Examiner did a five-part series on transportation planning for the Games.

The final installment on February 6, 1983 was a review of Caltrans’ extensive plans for freeway monitoring and other technological innovations which made traffic control a success.

The article profiled LAOOC transportation czar George McDonald, a 23-year public transportation veteran, including the last 11 with SCRTD.

In addition to all of the transportation coordination, he was directly responsible for transporting the “Olympic family.”

This included the athletes, coaches and trainers, Olympic officials and members of the international media, all totalling over 25,000.

O’Connell acknowledged that traffic aid could not be pushed onto the public:  “This isn’t Moscow.  We can’t force people to park miles away and bus to the events. But I believe people will make the switch once they are presented with the full picture.”

Olympic bus fleet crowds with directional signage, August 3, 1984

The LAOOC agreed to issue suggestions, maps and specific traffic plans as part of its package to ticket buyers.

But not everyone was convinced that the plan could be pulled off.

The August, 1983 issue of the University of California Institute of Transportation Studies Review quoted the head of the California Highway Patrol’s Olympic Planning Unit:  “Of all the problems we’re faced with with these Olympic Games, transportation is the surest and the most inevitable mess unless we get the cooperation and support of people to adust their use of their personal vehicles.”

The Los Angeles Times reported on January 27, 1983 that the same CHP leader warned that “traffic jams in the Coliseum area during the Games may be so severe that some motorists may abandon their cars on the freeway.  A good towing system will be necesary.”

An Olympic Transportation Advisory Committee was set up with the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee and all major transportation-related agencies.

The Downtown service plan (Click to enlarge)

The venues stretched from the canoeing and rowing site in Lake Casitas in Ventura County to the modern pentathlon site in Coto de Caza in Orange County — a distance of over 130 miles.

With the Games spread out across four Southern California counties as well as many local jurisdictions, organizing the organizers was no small feat in itself.

The comprehensive traffic and transportation plan would include remote parking, shuttle buses, rerouting surface streets, scheduling events to avoid peak traffic, coordinating staggered work hours with the business community and public education.

The CHP was also responsible for the security of visiting dignitaries, including President Ronald Reagan who opened the games on July 28.

Checkpoints would open as early as 4 a.m. on the day of events to keep away everyone except ticket holders, local residents, authorized vehicles and participants.

Figueroa and Flower Streets — both of which border Exposition Park — were converted to one-way thoroughfares to expedite downtown traffic.

Freeway ramps were shut down at key points on the Harbor and Santa Monica Freeways were initated in addition to major street closures adjacent to the Coliseum and University of Southern California campus for the duration of the Games.


The Southern California Rapid Transit District was operating the nation’s largest all-bus system and was prepared to put a special 550-bus Olympic fleet into service along 24 shuttle, express and park-and-ride routes.

Celebrity public service announcements promoted the benefits of using public transportation during the Games

After meeting with city and state transportation officials as well as the LAOOC, the Transit District opeted to start from scratch in providing special service requiring more than 1,000 workers.

400 operators joined the efforts of 300 mechanics and service attendants, 150 student volunteers and 300 office staff to transport 40% of the Olympic spectators.

The plan was to successfully carry 4 out of every 10 spectators to the Coliseum, UCLA, Rose Bowl, Dodger Stadium and other major venues.

The extra service was so vast it was comparable to starting up the 4th largest transit system in California from scratch for just a 16-day period.

But this was in addition to regularly scheduled service.

The September, 1984 issue of Headway, the SCRTD employee newsmagazine explained in retrospect:

“Compounding matters, RTD carried a record 1.6 million weekday boarding passengers on its existing service in June, only a month before the Games began.

Many bus lines were operating at capacity, particularly those traveling by Exposition Park.”

Even with five years of planning and comprehensive preventative measures, transportation planners feared the worst for “Black Friday” — the seventh day of the Games when the first track and field events began at the Coliseum.

Adding to the crowds at the Coliseum were the swimming and boxing competitions underway across the street at USC, with baseball at Dodger Stadium a few miles away and 14 other events going on in a corridor straddling downtown and stretching from the Rose Bowl in Pasadena to UCLA on the city’s Westside.

The July, 1984 issue of Mass Transit magazine contains an excellent overview of transportation planning for the Games

All told, an estimated 405,000 attendees could be attending events on August 3 along with a huge number of additional spectators lining the shore to watch yachting off of Long Beach.

Planners hoped the Olympic Fleet would carry 326,000 people on Black Friday…and kept their fingers crossed.

At the east end of the Coliseum, an oblong bus facility, similar in shape to the Coliseum track, allowed SCRTD to disembark passengers near the famous Olympic Gateway statues beneath the Olympic flame.

Planners created a turnaround three bus-widths wide.  Buses on the outside lane loaded passengers, with those bound to and from Downtown  boarding at special passenger control gates on the north side of the loop.

On the inside track, the Transit District stored up to 20 buses, 10 on each side.  These idled until a berth opened, then swiftly moved to load passengers.

Fares were kept at a premium, as none of the regular budget was to be used to offset the Olympic Fleet’s $13.6 million budget.

A detailed SCRTD budget had been developed more than a year in advance to cover the 15-month period leading up to the Games and just after.

$2 one-way shuttle service and $6 one-way express rides longer than 20 miles were projected to make up 88% of the special service costs with the difference covered by the sale of commemorative tokens.

An exhaustive SCRTD Transit Service And Control Plan was disseminated one month prior to the Games, as well as detailed Operator Service Instructions covering the July 28 – August 12 timeframe.

An unparalleled Transit District communications program was used to inform the public of the special Olympic bus service.

More than 1.25 million copies of this 16-page brochure were distributed around the world instructing spectators on taking public transit to the Olympic venues (Click to enlarge)

Passengers were provided with a comprehensive Bus Service Guide To The 1984 Olympics covering each venue and how to get there using the dedicated Olympic Fleet.

In fact, over 1.25 million of these brochures were distributed worldwide.

An intensive advertising campaign was reinforced by an international media blitz.

SCRTD provided its own videotape about Olympic preparations to news stations and documentary producers from around the globe.

Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley attended the grand opening where he repeated a familiar theme: “Take the Bus to the Games.”

More than 1 million boarding passengers heeded his message.

Commuters opted to alter their driving habits and work hours and predictions of gridlock never materialized.

The exhaustive planning and inter-agency coordination was a success.

Not only was the region spared of debilitating congestion, traffic jams were nowhere to be found and the Los Angeles Area enjoyed some of the most carefree commuting in recent history.

Another upshot: smog was greatly reduced during the Olympics.  The clean air impressed both locals and visitors alike.

Transporting locals and visitors from around the world during our 1984 Olympics was so successful that several analyses were performed to understand why everything worked as well as it did.

In October 1984, SCRTD did extensive evaluation of the transit services during the Olympics to identify the factors contributing to their resounding success.

The following year, the University of California Institute of Transportation Studies issued their Olympics Transportation System Management Performance Analysis.

The Southern California Association of Governments coordinated an Olympic Legacy Task Force and developed an outreach program in 1986 to capture public impressions and capitalize on how traffic and transportation improvements during the Games could be made permanent.

SCAG later issued their transportation policy recommendations for freeway flow management, arterial flow management, truck delivery schedules, public and private sector employment commuting, public transit and urban form in a set of recommendations titled “The Olympic Legacy: Let’s Keep It Moving.”

Los Angeles’ Olympic transportation planning success is captured in this video titled “A Gold Medal Performance by Public Transit,” highlighted by testimonials from passengers from around the world.


Transportation planner Jon Hillmer was part of the planning process and continues to work at Metro to this day as Director of Regional Service Councils.

He shared some memories with us this week regarding the unprecedented preparation for the Games.

He explained that Downtown was obviously the focal point for the events, but it was a challenge to find spaces large enough to stage lines of buses and lines for pre-paid fare holders.

One of the largest was an empty lot at Spring & 1st Streets where a courthouse once stood.

The September, 1984 issue of Headway contains numerous recollections of the transportation planning success from the Olympic Games

He recalled that the buses were usually loaded about 2/3 full to accomodate more stops en route to the venues.

Hillmer pointed out that all of the communications between staff working to coordinate service was done on hand-held radios.

Although less than 30 years ago, no one had the cellphones or web tools that we take for granted now.

To ensure that everything could run as smoothly as possible, SCRTD put the finishing touches on its own command Center a few blocks from the Caltrans headquarters.

Hillmer recalled that while there was a task force and a lot of advance planning, the execution was truly a team effort involving everyone at SCRTD in some way.

The proud and excited staff worked way beyond their normal schedules to ensure that things ran smoothly.

Everyone was advised to help protect patrons from pickpockets on crowded buses during the Games.

At the time, roving mechanic Steve Kaufmann, an 8-year employee, reported that “the service helped break down barriers.  We got to meet the people who work at the office, and they got to meet the operators, mechanics and instructors.”

Bus instructor Bob Johnson told Headways that “this is the first time that I was involved in something else outside instruction.  I never get a chance to see results out on the streets.  Now that I get to see how buses operate, it gives me a sense of self-satisfaction and a sense of pride.”

Johnson explained that “perhaps 90% of what we did was public relations work.”

Smiles and gestures went a long way toward overcoming language barriers.

Spivack noted that the Olympic bus fleet went out of their way to make sure that nobody got left behind, sometimes stopping to pick up stray spectators who were lost or wandered away.

Olympic bus service at Memorial Coliseum, August 3, 1984

Transportation planning for the 1984 Olympics was such a success that the organizers of several subsequent games contacted SCRTD and Metro to learn from the Los Angeles experience.

Former SCRTD and current Metro employee Gary Spivack said that officials from Salt Lake City, Sydney and even Beijing contacted Los Angeles transit leaders regarding the preparation for and execution of the 1984 transportation plan.

He also noted that elements of the plans were used in several other large-scale operations well after the Games, such as the Papal Visit to Los Angeles in 1987, bus bridges for major rail project construction and openings and as recently as last year’s highly-touted “Carmageddon.”

Hillmer recalls that the general feeling was that SCRTD staff took a great deal of pride not just in their city hosting the XXIII Olympiad, but also in the Transit District being relied upon by all of Los Angeles to keep the city moving for sixteen days and nights when Los Angeles welcomed back the world both in person and through their television and newspapers from around the world.

The September, 1984 Headway article pointed out that:

“For many employees, the Olympic bus service provided their first opportunity to work in a function outside their normal responsibility.”

The effects of the experience will not be quickly forgotten by those who served as passenger assistants.

Not forgotten, they say, for the sense of comradery, pride, warmth and efficiency evident at each boarding location.”