The morning sun was still hanging low over a silhouetted New York skyline, and kickoff was almost four hours away, but already the smoky aroma of barbecue was rising from hundreds of tailgate parties outside Giants Stadium at the Meadowlands. Some Jets fans washed down omelets and pancakes with swigs of beer. Others dashed headlong into lunch, breaking out the burgers, sausage subs and pork chops at an hour when sensible folks would still be in bed or at church.
"We come early just to beat the traffic," said John Hruska, a Jets fan from Scotch Plains, N.J., who had pitched camp at pole 18C of the parking lot about 9 a.m. before the start of Sunday's game against the Redskins in East Rutherford, N.J. "This is the ideal lot. The road to get out is right here."
Hruska and his band of fellow season-ticket holders settled on 18C after several years of experimenting with lots closer to the stadium and farther away. Now, 18C even has its own tailgate Web site. But Paula Belotta, of Colonia, N.J., said: "We're always upgrading the strategy. It's a never-ending process."
Since the Meadowlands opened, the fans and stadium operators have amassed 23 years of experience at one of modern society's most awesome mass exercises: moving nearly 80,000 people in 30,000 cars in and out of the confined space of the stadium grounds.
It is a test that National Football League clubs across the country take every Sunday from September to January. It is a test that the Redskins failed miserably on opening day earlier this month, when cars bound for Redskins Stadium backed up for 20 miles along the Capital Beltway and traffic took three hours to clear after the game.
But last Sunday, even as the Redskins were notching a come-from-behind win over the Jets, the Meadowlands and the Jets fans were recording another victory over traffic. Few fans were left outside the stadium at kickoff -- unlike the angry army of Redskins fans still arriving at their seats at halftime -- and cars slowed for only two miles on the New Jersey Turnpike. Postgame traffic subsided an hour and 15 minutes after the final whistle.
The experience of the Meadowlands and other NFL stadiums across the country, including six stadiums visited by Washington Post correspondents during games Sunday, provides some guidance on ways to relieve the worst of the Redskins congestion. These include savvier management of parking, promotion of transit and charter bus service, and encouragement of pregame and postgame tailgating and other entertainment to spread the rush -- although the last initiative may be a tough sell for buttoned-down, booked-up Washingtonians.
The history of NFL stadiums also offers the sobering lesson that the decision to build the new Redskins home far from downtown -- at a site with poor transit service and easy access to only one major artery, the Beltway -- may have locked it into gridlock.
In some essential respects, the Meadowlands is the venue most akin to Redskins Stadium. Both are suburban stadiums with seating capacities of about 80,000, built beyond the reach of train service and surrounded by some of the largest parking lots in the country. The Meadowlands' 27,000 parking spaces are more than at any other NFL park but Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo. Redskins Stadium ranks fourth, with 22,000.
But unlike Redskins Stadium, the Meadowlands is woven into the weft of several major highways: the New Jersey Turpike just to the east, eight-lane Route 3 just to the south, and other main arteries only moments away.
"You need to create as many places where people can come and go," said Daniel Baer, a traffic engineer with Edwards and Kelcey, a consultant to the Meadowlands authority. "It would be extremely problematic if there was only one available main artery. It wouldn't work. You'd have horrible access and egress problems."
That was obvious to the green-jerseyed fans at Sunday's game. "You got a billion ways to get in here," said Doug Bramson, of Branchburg, N.J., sunk deep in a lawn chair in the parking lot, smoking cigars and eating Oreos before game time.
Transportation engineers say football stadiums must meet at least one of three conditions if they are to avoid suffocating traffic. Access to more than one major thoroughfare is rule number one.
Ralph Wilson Stadium outside Buffalo, for instance, has a wealth of nearby roads, including the New York Thruway and Southern Tier Expressway. It drains so quickly that not only are the lots empty in less than an hour -- the maximum time that traffic engineers say it should take to clear a stadium -- but any fan who lives within 20 miles should get home by that time.
"You're not limited to one road in and one road out," said Lou Nuchereno, who lives in Williamsville, N.Y., about 18 miles from the stadium. "If the game ends at 4, I'm always home by the second quarter of the second game [on television]."
If a stadium has poor highway access, it can still avoid serious congestion if located near a rail line. A study conducted in 1994, when the Redskins were considering where to relocate, found that at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, only 63 percent of the fans came by car. With Metrorail running to the doorstep, 22 percent took the train and 15 percent the bus.
At the Redskins' new home, there is no direct rail connection, and more than 90 percent of the fans arrive by car. On opening day, fewer than 5,500 fans took shuttle buses run by Metro from three of its closest rail stations.
Metro's sister transit agency in the San Francisco area, however, has proved a godsend for Network Associates Coliseum in Oakland, home of the Raiders. Bay Area Rapid Transit trains pull up to an overpass connecting to the stadium. About 30 percent of the fans ride them.
At PSINet Stadium in Baltimore, home of the Ravens, a combination of light-rail and bus service carries up to 17 percent of the fans to games.
Locating a stadium in the center of a city is the third, and perhaps most effective, way to tame traffic. Although the Ravens provide only 4,210 spaces, there are more than 30,000 nearby spots in downtown parking garages and lots, which are crammed during the week with office workers but vacant on Sundays.
"Football is the dovetail of all dovetails with downtown parking," said Walter Kulash, a traffic engineer with Glatting Jackson. "Everything about downtown parking is geared for access 230 days a year. A downtown doesn't even breathe heavily to move 30,000 vehicles in and out."
Joe Goodrick, of Towson, Md., arrived two hours early for the Ravens game on Sunday and easily found a spot in Federal Hill. "There's a ton of parking," he said. "What we end up doing is that there's a pub along the way. We stopped by there, and that makes it better."
Indeed, not only can the network of city streets absorb vast numbers of cars, they offer the dining, shopping and leisurely strolling that prompt football fans to arrive early and delay their departure, which is crucial to diluting the traffic rush. Contrast that to Redskins Stadium, where the surrounding sprawl offers few enticements for fans to venture beyond the vast moat of blacktop.
"That's like out of the '60s to build an isolated suburban stadium," Kulash said.
So can Redskins Stadium eke out its own come-from-behind victory?
Perhaps no initiative could do more to alleviate congestion than a successful campaign to boost Metro ridership to the games, traffic planners said. Redskins consultants had projected that 18 percent of the fans would ride the subway and then switch to shuttle buses. Barely a third of that number did so on opening day this season.
The Denver Broncos and the Denver transit agency have demonstrated the potential for ferrying fans by bus in a metropolitan area where rail service is spartan. The Broncos recorded a remarkable 15 percent bus ridership to Mile High Stadium last season. For the season opener this year, a Monday night game, that percentage reached 30 percent.
For Sunday games, more than 300 buses carry fans from 30 shopping centers and other locations with ample parking, some up to an hour away. The buses drop the fans close to the stadium and wait there until after the game. The maximum round-trip fare for this service, which has been aggressively marketed, is $4.
Other NFL clubs rely on hundreds of buses chartered by churches, bars and civic clubs to move thousands of fans. In Pittsburgh, for instance, the Steelers promote these bus services, providing drop-off spots as choice as those offered to limousines.
By contrast, adding parking spaces for cars can exacerbate traffic by discouraging bus ridership and car pooling, according to transportation experts.
After the season-opening traffic debacle, Redskins owner Daniel M. Snyder said he was planning to spend about $35 million to add up to 7,000 more parking spaces next to the stadium property. Days later, he tempered this promise, saying that the question of adding spaces was still under review.
The experience of other NFL stadiums indicates that the Redskins are moving in the right direction, however, with their announcement yesterday that they will separate cash and permit parking by limiting all lots at the stadium to prepaid parking. Fans paying cash will park on the east side of the Beltway at US Airways Arena. Traffic engineers and stadium operators said that offering both cash and permit parking in stadium lots is a cumbersome process, likely to cause the kind of mass confusion that snarled the Redskins parking lot on opening day.
Plans announced by the Redskins and police to beef up their use of electronic signs could also ease congestion. At the new Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, police and stadium operators rely on a traffic control system that includes electronic message signs and 10 surveillance cameras.
But perhaps it is experience that matters most in performing the delicate, daunting operation of threading almost 30,000 cars into parking lots. Stadium operators at the Meadowlands, after years of studying the travel patterns of home- and visiting-team fans, are keenly aware of which routes motorists will be taking and how fast lots are expected to fill. When the Redskins visited Sunday, for instance, operators anticipated slightly more northbound traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike, so they were poised to leave more spots on the south side of the stadium by routing traffic from other directions away from those lots.
By 11 a.m., the barbecue smoke billowing over the sea of green-and-white Jets pennants in the most popular inner lots had grown so thick that it stung the eyes. And empty spaces were so few that attendants, obeying orders from traffic commanders perched atop the stadium with binoculars, blocked the entrances with orange cones. Motorists were redirected to more remote locations.
"The key is knowing the history of the event and the history of the people who parked in the lot before," said Larry Perkins, a vice president with the Meadowlands authority. The operators of Redskins Stadium "don't necessarily know all of their demographics yet. That's a learning curve."
The unique demographics of Redskins fans, in fact, pose their own challenge. Putting an elevated value on their time, many Washington fans seem determined to program their play hours as precisely as their work hours. Thus they're reluctant to devote the better part of a Sunday to a football game. Yet transportation experts say that long hours of tailgating before and after games help dilute the traffic.
"We plan our whole day around the game," said Aaron McKeever, a Chiefs fan from Overland Park, Kan. "You can't tailgate like this anywhere else."
How often would you hear such exuberance in Washington?
Chiefs fans begin arriving at the entrance to the stadium parking lots as early as 5 a.m., and 25,000 are usually waiting when the gates open at 9 a.m. By 10 a.m., two hours before kickoff, as many as half the fans have already arrived, firing up their grills and smokers.
Chiefs spokesman Bob Moore said the club has actively fostered tailgating for 10 years, planning parking lot parties and erecting up to 50 tents for corporate gatherings.
By game time, traffic is a mere trickle, so quiet that the playing of the national anthem is audible in the parking lot.
Many stadium operators have recently begun to realize the virtue of wooing fans to come early. At Foxboro Stadium, the New England Patriots offer entertainment two hours before the game, while Tampa's stadium includes Buccaneer Cove, a mini-theme park with a $3 million pirate ship and numerous concession stands.
Some NFL clubs also leave their parking lots open for hours after the game in the hope that thousands of fans will hang back until the congestion clears.
An hour after the Redskins had defeated the Jets and dashed the spirits of their fans, most cars had finished inching out of the Meadowlands and begun their crawl homeward on surrounding highways. But thousands of other fans remained on the vast lots, strewn with bottles and cans, napkins and spent mustard packets. Dozens of tailgate parties had resumed, and isolated plumes of smoke from cooking fires rose like from a wasted field after battle.
At a corner of the lot, Craig Williams, of Wallkill, N.Y., had gathered around a portable picnic table with friends and family, feasting on hot nachos. "It's bumper to bumper, people yelling at you as you try to cross three lanes of traffic," he said, recalling a time two years ago when he braved the postgame rush. "That's a nightmare. I'd never do it again. We're better off relaxing for an hour and a half."
Staff writer Manuel Perez-Rivas in Baltimore and special correspondents Will Bohlen in Foxboro, Mass., Mark Gaughan in Buffalo, Tony Kuttner in Oakland, Calif., Howard Richman in Kansas City, Mo., and Pete Williams in Tampa contributed to this report.
CAPTION: COMPARING THE STADIUMS (This graphic was not available)