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Is Britain’s Olympic legacy in danger of being thwarted by transport woes?

08May Posted by Sara Benwell

When I say I’m not looking forward to the Olympics, people look at me like I’ve lost it, or like I’m unpatriotic, or a massive spoilsport – but I think they’re missing the point. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of sports. I think the Olympics are fantastic and that they will be a great tourism boost for the UK, but I just can’t shake the feeling that it’s all going to be bit of a logistical nightmare. More importantly though, I think the success of the Olympics (heroic efforts of Team GB aside) will be measured by the success of the Olympic legacy. The cost of the Olympics can only be justified by a strong Olympic legacy – and that legacy could very easily fail off the back of current transport problems.

So why am I worried about the Olympics?

International Travel

I have to admit – my biggest worry when it comes to the Olympics has to do with Heathrow. I have, in my relatively short life, spent more time than I’d care to remember in Heathrow airport. Most specifically queuing up for hours on end in immigration or waiting in baggage reclaim. We’re talking about the third biggest airport in the world, with over 70 million passengers a year and only two runways. Most competing airports, in terms of passenger numbers, have multiple runways - for example the O’Hare airport in Chicago has 5. As if this wasn’t concerning enough, the BBC recently reported that the UK Border Agency has insufficient money to open all of its passport stations, meaning that the problem is unlikely to improve.

Passengers flying into Heathrow last weekend were reported as having to wait for up to three hours before clearing passport control. Obviously the higher influx of people entering the country throughout the Olympics means the problems will most likely worsen.

While visitors may understand that the Olympics is a busy time, if they face unacceptably long waits at immigration they may be deterred from returning. I know I’d be unlikely to return to a country where it took me over three hours to get through border control, and that was the reported wait time the weekend before last before the Olympics had even kicked off!

If things such as queues at passport control are tarnishing London’s reputation before the Olympics have even begun, this should be a real source of concern to a government that has spent millions in advertising campaigns abroad promoting tourism in Britain off the back of the games. An Olympic legacy where tourists are deterred from ever returning – is no Olympic legacy at all!

London Transport Links

Transport for London have recently announced that there are expected to be an unprecedented 15 million journeys on the busiest days of the Olympics in London. Despite investing £6.5 billion to upgrade and extend transport links in order to increase capacity and improve services across London and the rest of the country there is increasing concern about the heavy strain that will be put on transport infrastructure across the capital.

A new hotspot map produced by TFL shows the areas that are expected to feel the strain during the Olympics – most of central London. This is not only going to affect the tourists and visitors in London for the Olympics, but also will have a huge impact on ordinary working people in the city.

Many of the more sensible big London firms have already trialled systems allowing the majority of people to work from home, or work flexibly, realising that losing several hours a day while their employees battle their way into work is neither logical nor good for productivity. However, a number of businesses will still require that their employees be present in the office, where it will be business as usual. The burden of the Olympics on a transport system which rarely works without a hitch on a normal day, could prove very costly to a number of businesses who will lose out due to reduced productivity.

This problem will be perpetuated by the fact that TFL seem to be relying too heavily on the ability of Londoners to change their work habits, when not everyone can cycle to work or work staggered hours. The bulk of TFL’s advice seems to be ‘plan your journey’ or ‘avoid hotspots’ but for many people this isn’t an option. If you work in central London, your offices may be surrounded by hotspots, with very little advice given as to how else to get into work. Particularly, as the buses will also be crowded and there will be heavy traffic. The TFL need to do more to make sure that everyday Londoners have credible alternative transport solutions during the Olympic games, or their success plan, which hinges on a massive reduction of normal usage (in some areas by more than 60%), will fail.

Accommodation shortages

The Olympics are expected to lead to a shortage of accommodation both affordable and otherwise. While this is likely to be a problem in of itself, it is also going to make the transport chaos worse. As most people will have to stay a considerable distance from where the events are actually being held they will have to travel in and out of the Olympic sites, and not all will be within walking distance. There will also be an increased number of people travelling into London from other cities meaning stations like Liverpool Street and King’s Cross will really be feeling the strain. All of this will only serve to perpetuate the overburdening of London’s transport links.

While I’m proud of London and I think the Olympics will bring many benefits – the key to a successful Olympic legacy will hinge on whether the transport system can cope. It’s not too late to iron out some of the issues at Heathrow, and for TFL to help ease the issues with the public transport links, but if something isn’t done soon, the only Olympic legacy we will have is embarrassment.

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Comments (1)

Geordie Clarke posted 21st May 2012
I wouldn't say London is the best city for such a massive undertaking. The overall transportation system seems to be running at capacity most of the time; the railway infrastructure still isn't up to standard; most airports don't seem capable of handling any more traffic, particularly Heathrow.

I'm also not convinced the Olympics actually results in a pure monetary net-gain for the country, although if managed properly the legacy venues can be valuable public goods. Look at the stadiums and venues used for the Commonwealth games in Manchester for an example of this.

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