Londoners dread traffic nightmare during Olympics
The City’s twisty, ancient road network and its rickety subway system are already giving the creeps
London’s commuters have been warned to expect gridlock on the roads and paralysis on the subways. They have been advised to leave home well before rush hour; to travel by foot, bicycle or boat; and to forget about trying to drive anywhere even remotely connected with the Olympics.
And so John Horner, seasoned commuting veteran, has devised a simple personal transportation strategy for the Summer Games: Go nowhere. “I plan to stay at home for two weeks,” Horner, 52, a government worker, said the other morning as he rode the subway across London. “I have taken annual leave between July 27 and Aug 12 so that I can sit at home and watch the Games on TV.”
Scaring residents off the streets is only one way London is preparing for the influx of athletes, officials, spectators and sponsors during the Olympics. Three million of those visitors are likely to use public transportation on the busiest days, officials say, adding to the 12 million trips already taken daily on the city’s trains, subways and buses.
During the Games, there will be 30 or so miles of special road lanes reserved for the exclusive use of 80,000 dignitaries, athletes, officials, sponsors and members of the news media. A larger, 109-mile London “Olympic Route Network,” in which normal procedures like parking, getting on a bus, unloading goods and crossing the street will be curtailed or even banned, is meant to ensure speedy traveling between Olympic venues.
At some junctions, traffic lights will be turned off, and, in some areas, traffic lights will be altered to give priority to Olympic cars, forcing other cars to wait longer. And when the Games begin, 300 workers in bright-pink vests will be posted at particularly overstretched subway stations to suggest that commuters might want to try other ways of getting to the office.
In a city that never moves easily in the best of times, there are a lot of looming ifs. What if a subway line breaks down or is closed by a bomb scare? What if it rains and no one wants to bike to work? What if people discover that Olympic Park is way out in East London and refuse to walk that far?
What if residents are repelled by the spectacle of Olympic dignitaries barreling down the specially designated traffic lanes while the little people creep along congested lanes? “A lot of time and effort and thought have gone into putting the measures in place, but there’s no real way of guaranteeing that it will be effective,” said Karen Anderton, a researcher in the transport studies unit at the Oxford University Center for the Environment.
Tony Travers, director of the Greater London Group at the London School of Economics, said all the planning in the world could not remove the two biggest obstacles to a happy travelling experience in London: the city’s twisty, snarly, ancient road network and its temperamental subway system.
“The underground is risky and prone to breakdown,” he said. “Trains fail, signals fail, and every now and then, people have to be let out along the tracks. It’s an extremely safe system, but whether it works is just a matter of luck.”
John Biggs, a member of the London Assembly who represents East London, said he was most annoyed about the VIP road lanes, which he said would cater to fancy-jacket-
wearing “Blazerati,” at the expense of regular Londoners.
“This gives extra priority to people who have no urgent need to get to the stadium, but just want to get there first because they’re important,” he said.
Some experts suspect that officials have purposely set out to terrify the populace with dire predictions of commuting disasters. Then when a traffic apocalypse fails to materialise, they can say, “Hey, look what a good job we did,” said David Camp, a principal in the economics team at Aecom, an international land development and infrastructure consultancy.
“Right now it’s like the millennium bug all over again,” he said. “Everywhere you look, there are warnings of massive delays, emails going around companies, things in the press – it’s a whole lot of scaremongering.”
Howard Dawber, strategic adviser for the Canary Wharf Group, which manages a huge complex in East London where 100,000 people work, said it was not scaremongering but prudent planning.
“We’ve been able to communicate to very large numbers of people where the crunch points are going to be and how to avoid them,” Dawber said. “Our very blunt advice is: Avoid rush hour.” Forget rush hour, many say. What about all the other hours?
“The service is bad enough without the chaos of the Olympics,” said Chris Rogers, 34, a highly irritated maintenance worker waiting at the South Kensington subway stop the other morning. Colossal snarls on the District Line had made him 30 minutes late to work, he said.
Rocio Luna, 40, a sales clerk, said that she, too, had failed to make it into work on time, because of problems on the Circle Line. “Every day I’m late,” she said. “I called my boss and he said, ‘You can’t imagine what it’s going to be like during the Olympics.”' Then he suggested that during the Games, she might like to wake up a bit earlier, say 5 am, she added.
As a disembodied voice spoke of delays on the Central Line, a train arrived but proved too crowded to board. Inside the next one was James Tate, a 31-year-old computer consultant.
“It’s going to be a nightmare,” Tate said. “The minute we won the Olympics I said, ‘This is going to demonstrate to the rest of the world that it’s a bad idea to work in London.”'
Oddly enough, Tate said he had nothing against the subway system per se. “It’s just the way it is,” he said. “It’s much easier to walk.”