Lessons in Logistics from the NY Marathon

November 5th, 2011 1:01 pm Category: Optimization, by: John Hughes

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Imagine that you’re running a business that offers a wide variety of products ranging from security, to bus and ferry transportation, to public toilets, to refreshments. You have somewhere between 45,000 and 65,000 customers, who all arrive at your various locations en mass, requiring service over a very short time span. To further complicate your situation, you don’t get the opportunity to train many of your ‘employees’ on what they should or shouldn’t do; instead the best you can do is rely on their common sense and good intentions. Actually, since many are volunteers, you can’t necessarily be sure as to the actual number of people who will come to work for you. This is the business that the New York Road Runners Club will be in on November 6 during the running of ING New York City Marathon. And the lessons that the race organizers have learned for managing the event are of universal value and applicability to many logistics and supply chain organizations.

Consider food and water. There are about 23 locations along the route (about 1 per mile starting at mile 3), where mostly volunteer staff is responsible for “stocking” cups of water, Gatoraide, and PowerGel (only available at mile 18). In the past, certain of the less desirable stations have been undermanned, while at others as the day drags along some of the volunteers simply up and leave; “I’m a volunteer, so fire me”. And of course, once the race is over, the staff that remains need to perform the thankless and definitely unglamorous job of cleaning up (at least to some extent) the litter that has been created.

And then there is security. The race attracts a number of world-class runners and security precautions need to taken to make sure that fans and paparazzi do not become too intrusive. To insure that these individuals return year after year, the organizers make sure that these athletes are able to start the race at the head of the pack so that they don’t have to dodge other slower amateurs. In addition, a large number of people typically run the race (and utilize the services) without having officially registered and paid any money. This year, there were about 140,000 applications for the 62,000 slots in the race. This means that about 78,000 people were rejected, and it is estimated that about 15% of these will run the race anyway. The Road Runners Club does not try to prevent any of these unofficial entrants due to the chaotic nature of the race start. However, security is in place at the finish, when the runners are strung-out, so that these “bandits” as they’re called, do not receive any of the available memorabilia.

Finally there’s transportation. Since the race is a “point to point” one, where the finish is at a different location than the start, runners are provided transportation to the beginning of the race. About 20,000 participants will take 522 chartered buses to the starting line. And they’ll all need this service in the space of about 2.5 hours. Since there is only 1 available bridge, if one of the buses were to breakdown at a critical location, a major traffic jam could result delaying many more runners than just those on the one disabled vehicle. Alternatively, approximately 21,100 entrants are expected to use the Staten Island ferry system. Between 5:30am and 8:30am, there will be a ferry leaving Manhattan every 15 minutes. Although the largest of these can accommodate 6,500, the organizers will try to limit each individual trip to half of the ship’s capacity. Again, this is an attempt to make sure that in the event of a breakdown, the number of runners affected (either delayed in Manhattan or stuck on a boat in the middle of the harbor) will be minimized. In fact, one of the ferries did experience mechanical problems in 2010. And when the runners disembark the ferry, a fleet of 70 buses will shuttle them the 2 or 3 miles to the starting line: 10 buses will load simultaneously at the St. George Terminal for the short trip. Last year the average load time for each group of 10 was 4 minutes, 22 seconds.

The New York Road Runners Club typically receives wide praise on blogs and other feedback forums from participants, for how well the Marathon is organized and run. In light of the unique circumstances of such an event, they have learned how to run their logistics operation like clockwork, always anticipating and planning for the worst that might happen. They’ve figured out how to manage a supply chain that is spread over a wide area and with a “work force” that presents its own unique challenges. Many businesses would do well to study their methods and take a page from the same playbook.

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