Back-Seat Driver

What happened to that traffic jam Golden 1 Center was going to cause downtown?

I went looking for trouble in downtown Sacramento last week and failed to find it.

More than 15,000 people descended on the Golden 1 Center area, sang along with Paul McCartney, then left. No traffic jam. No carmageddon. A number of them said they were surprised at how easy it all was.

Maybe they shouldn’t have been. An in-depth city traffic analysis two years ago said most arena attendees would arrive after the commute period waned and there would only be a few congestion hot spots.

That analysis got one thing wrong. It said the Interstate 5 ramps at J Street could be the worst problem with potential 15-minute backups. But the report authors said that was a worst-case scenario, if no one changed their driving patterns. Those ramps flowed smoothly both concert nights, partly because of signal and traffic-flow changes the city made, and apparently partly because of drivers heeding warnings to try alternate routes.

It wasn’t perfection. Cars at times crept along Seventh Street near the arena. The city had to reconfigure some L and J Street traffic signals on the fly the first night. Sacramento Regional Transit launched too many trains too early that night, thinking the concert was over a half-hour before it actually ended. (And, there was the sprinkler at Third and L streets that kept spraying people walking into the garage there, causing them to shriek and run, which I guess technically sped up pedestrian traffic.)

Some disabled people were upset that the designated ADA drop-off spot is a full block from the arena. I did see a number of people doing quick, ad hoc drop-offs just about anywhere they could get away with it, and even saw some uniformed people scurrying out to help them rather than shooing them away.

There were a ton of city officials, police, downtown guides, RT and Kings representatives on the streets and sidewalks helping out. I ran into RT’s attorney standing at Seventh and K in a yellow vest, guiding people to homebound trains.

RT appears to have scored an initial success in its effort to be a bigger player in the region’s transportation system. Ten percent of McCartney fans rode light rail. Many were first-timers. RT will offer free rides to the Sacramento Kings season opener Oct. 27 for anyone with an arena ticket.

At the city’s urging, nearly 2,400 drivers used the city’s SacPark website to reserve and prepurchase a garage parking spot the night of the second concert, slightly more than the first night. That means that about 40 percent of concertgoers either went directly to a garage or rode RT, and didn’t clog the streets circling blocks looking for a street parking spot.

A lot of people, though, were willing to pay $18 for street meters within three blocks of the arena. That price is in place when events draw more than 15,000. (Each meter readout screen will tell you that night’s price.)

Why pay $18, when some garages a few blocks from the arena charged $11? A number of people said they feared it would be hard to get out of garages after the concert. But waits in garages after the concerts were minimal. Some garages simply had their gates up, and cars flowed out without stopping, thanks to the prepayment program.

Fewer than 100 people rode their bikes to each concert, according to bike advocate counts. But it appears a fair number of people took rideshare services and liked the freedom it offered to imbibe. One told us, though, that she got hit with “surge pricing” on the way to the arena, paying $17 for a ride from Campus Commons.

What really struck us was how many people were willing to walk for blocks, a few for more than a mile.

Now come the Kings, beginning with a preseason game this Monday night. Basketball games will start at 7:30 p.m., a half hour earlier than the McCartney concert. City officials say they still don’t expect much overlap with commute traffic. And, basketball traffic may be smoother than concert traffic because, as repeat customers, Kings fans will figure out the best routes, parking strategies and timing for themselves.

There will be problems. A light-rail train could break down on a crowded block. Or a car crash on a key street could cause headaches. On Sunday, for instance, about an hour before the start of the WWE No Mercy pro-wrestling match, a minor collision on I-5 downtown snarled traffic for a time.

Some day, downtown will be more crowded overall. A major league soccer team may well be playing a few blocks away. There could even be a day when the Kings, the River Cats and the soccer team all play on the same day. Light rail will grow in importance.

For now, we’ve seen one basic transportation truth in action: The downtown street grid system works well at dispersing people. John Sutter did good.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee