Maintaining a seamless flow of vehicle and pedestrian traffic is paramount during the Kentucky Derby. The Louisville Metro Police Department does its best to keep foot and vehicle traffic away from one another for safety’s sake. (Photo by Jim Robertson)
No matter the size of a community, when a festival comes to town, traffic often becomes an issue that law enforcement must address. When traffic is out of control, it affects many things, including event security.
The same holds true for the Louisville Metro Police Department during events surrounding the Kentucky Derby. Annually, approximately 300,000 people visit Derby City for the big race and the events leading up to it.
Traffic control and security go hand-in-hand, LMPD Lt. Brent Routzahn said.
“The biggest obstacle is having people in traffic positions,” he explained. “Security is important, but to get everyone out, it’s pivotal to have (officers) in the right place.”
To do that, LMPD and its partner agencies must be singing from the same sheet of music, Routzahn said.
“We all have to be together at every meeting because if we do one thing, it could affect (Derby officials) negatively,” he said. “If they do something, it could affect us negatively, so we have to make sure everybody is on the same page.”
During Derby week, several streets are closed off, and fences are erected to keep pedestrians separated from vehicle traffic to make it safer.
In recent years, shuttle buses have been used to facilitate traffic flow as Derby goers are urged to utilize parking further away from Churchill Downs, and the change has worked out well, LMPD Sgt. Ronald Fey said.
“Some of the good things we’ve done here recently is to displace some of the parking out to the fairgrounds,” he explained. “The fairgrounds has 22,000 parking spots, and it is located more than a mile away from the track. Therefore, when traffic disperses, it exits away from the track, so it doesn’t impact track traffic.”
The buses are directed to Central Avenue, which is right outside Churchill Downs, LMPD Lt. Jill Hume said.
“We also have a large area for the buses,” she said. “There are 262 buses that shuttle people back and forth. We completely shut down Central Avenue of all (vehicle) traffic except for those buses and emergency vehicles.”
The buses are not just for spectators. Getting officers into position is one of LMPD’s most significant challenges, because parking around the venue is sparse.
“That is part of our partnership with the University of Louisville,” Hume said. “They allow us to use their parking garage, we park Kentucky State Police and some of our officers there and shuttle them to the training facility for roll call, and they walk across to Churchill Downs.”
Of course, bus traffic and pedestrians don’t mix well when hundreds of people are trying to cross a busy roadway at the same time.
In 2018, temporary bridges were utilized to eliminate foot traffic on the roadway, but the results were less than desirable.
“There was one pedestrian bridge that was utilized last year,” Fey said. “It allowed the volume of traffic to go up and over the shuttle route. The problem we ran into last year was it rained, and people were slipping and falling.
“Another thing was the bottleneck,” he continued. “The volume of people coming and going was too much for the bridge. At one time, it was backed up to the point we crossed them on the surface. We had to do that to alleviate the bottleneck.”
As services such as Uber and Lyft become more popular, LMPD officers find themselves continually keeping an eye out for drivers who choose not to follow the rules.
“For Uber and Lyft, we designate a location for them to use, but the vast majority of (the drivers) will not use that location to either pick up or drop off,” Fey said. “They will go into areas that they’re not supposed to be going to, and that causes problems because they’ll stop in locations where traffic is supposed to be flowing, or they will sit and park in locations where traffic is supposed to be flowing to pick people up.”
An added problem regarding ride-share services is that drivers are unfamiliar with the area, Fey continued.
“Many of these drivers from Uber and Lyft are not local people,” he explained. “Therefore, they don’t know the area well, and they’re not following the instructions we give them. That does cause problems.”
Near Churchill Downs, residents and businesses set up golf cart rentals and drive people from a makeshift parking area, such as a person’s residence, to the venue for a fee.
“Those are dangerous because they don’t have the same occupancy protection, and they’re not legal to be operated on the roadways, and they’re not licensed to be operated for compensation,” Fey said.
When ride-share and golf cart drivers break the rules, officers issue citations.
“As many as we can do,” Fey said. “Again, we’re using maximum staffing, and we do have people out to address those situations.”
There are many elements to a traffic control plan, including flow and security.
“When you have a large volume of people exiting a bus at a designated area, it could make for an inviting target,” Hume said.
“Our biggest issue, from a security standpoint, was we had a large number of people exiting these buses who were waiting in line, so we had an overflow of people,” she explained. “Therefore, if there was any type of active-shooter or terrorist attack, you were going to have a large crowd just basically standing right there in that area.”
Routzahn quickly agreed, adding that if pedestrian traffic is backed up, the security threat increases.
“It does create a lucrative target. If you get a whole group in there, that is an attractive target,” he added. “So, on Derby day, we streamlined it a little bit more as far as getting people in (Churchill Downs).”
Overall, the off-loading of buses went well, Hume said.
“It was the unknown, but I came away very impressed by how fast the lines moved,” she continued. “We were telling people to be patient, but expect delays. However, it was very smooth and went quickly, and the lines were not as long as we anticipated.”
The potential for terror attacks on a large-scale, international event such as the Kentucky Derby is one of the primary reasons the traffic plan is put into place. To that end, LMPD keeps watching global events and implementing tactics from tragedies, such as the August 2017 incident when a van plowed through a crowd of people at a popular tourist district in Barcelona, Spain. That incident resulted in 12 deaths and another 100 people injured.
Another traffic security measure deals with the potential of vehicle rammings.
“In 2016, it was the first year we used dump trucks,” Hume said. “I used them during the Pegasus Parade. I only had four of them. That was the first real security measure (to prevent vehicle rammings) we took to adapt to what was going on in the world.”
During the 2019 Derby, Hume said the city had 18 dump trucks strategically placed around Churchill Downs.
“We learned how to use them best,” she continued. “Instead of just sitting on the side of the road, now we put them in strategic areas and implement new tactics.”
By using dump trucks, what was once a security weakness is shored up, Routzahn added.
“One of the most significant vulnerabilities we had before was the potential for vehicle rammings,” he opined. “Now I think, for the most part, we’ve taken it away the best we can.”
Successful 2019 Plan
The reward for all of the meticulous planning was a rather uneventful Derby Day in terms of traffic, as the plan for 2019 worked as it was supposed to, despite a few hiccups, Hume said.
“There was a non-injury accident at Central Avenue and Crittendon Drive, which slowed things down for a short time until the road was clear,” she said. “(By comparison), the traffic detail cleared (from the traffic detail) about 30 minutes earlier than last year.”