Crowd control: Is London travel-ready for Summer 2012?

November 16, 2011

London Assembly’s transport committee grilled London and Olympic travel executives on Tuesday about what Transport for London (TfL) calls “100 days of extraordinary operation,” a period which includes both the 2012 Games and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.

The Transport Committee, which presses for travel improvements for Londoners, heard that the hardware is there but more needs to done to ensure London’s transport infrastructure can take the strain during a period when a third of Londoners will be obliged to significantly change their travel patterns.

UK transport bosses must tread a fine line enacting programmes which both address strict Games regulations and the needs of Londoners. It is a balancing act, but one in which local politicians see scope for common-sense tweaks.

As committee chair Caroline Pidgeon told me, “They’re not going to take the Games away from us if we do some things that aren’t quite what we signed up to. So let’s have some sense in this, and push boundaries.”

Pidgeon was referring in particular to the Olympic Route Network (ORN) and Paralympic Route Network (PRN), roads unencumbered by pedestrian crossings and parked cars, with side roads blocked off and turning options deactivated. The network is causing particular consternation to London councils, despite the fact that they will operate on just one percent of London’s tributaries.

Which roads when?
To complicate matters, “Games Lanes” make up a third of the 109-mile long ORN and are only accessible to the 80,000-strong Games Family (Olympics athletes, team officials, media, sponsors) and their fleet of 1,500 coaches and 4,000 cars and vans.

“Everyone understands athletes and officials should be able to use Games Lanes,” Pidgeon said. “But sponsors and VIPS; quite honestly some of them should be using things like the short train journey from St Pancras, which will be far more pleasant than driving all that way.”

Pidgeon was referring to the high-speed Javelin service which is designed to whisk thousands of sports fans from central London to the Olympic Park in a few minutes.

London’s iconic black cabs are under current rules disallowed onto these lanes and have threatened to blockade city streets if their concerns on this subject are not addressed. Talks are ongoing between TfL and the taxi companies.

Defending the exclusive use of Games Lanes at a culture, media and sport select committee hearing on November 15, LOCOG Chairman Seb Coe said: “The reputational damage to this city is at its highest if we can’t get those client groups round London quickly and to those events that they are either competing in or managing for us.”

“It is very important that taxi drivers are not being disadvantaged in this process,” Coe told the select committee. “I would be concerned if anybody carried out a threat of disruption during an Olympic Games; it’s tough enough to organise as it is.”

Up the junction
With an extra three million journeys expected during the Games’ busiest days, TfL are breaking down the entire Olympic period in half-hour intervals to let businesses know where and when pressure points are predicted and how to best avoid them. Hotspots are due to seriously affect city employees who work near the main London rail termini, as well as around the key financial districts of Bank and Canary Wharf.

At least 85 percent of businesses at Canary Wharf, for example, will vary staff working hours and encourage others to work from home or take a holiday. Canary Wharf houses approximately 120,000 workers and sits on the Jubilee underground line that runs to the Olympic Park at Stratford.

However, real-time efforts could make all the difference between seamless travel and congested chaos; TfL will be steering people from using flared-up routes, keeping Olympics spectators off the commuter-full Jubilee Line at rush hours for example and diverting them on to the National Railway from Liverpool Street.

This might be easier with overseas visitors than set-in-their-ways locals. “If you’re from outside London, up to a point, you will follow the route you’re told; but Londoners [...] know all their shortcuts and will continue with them,” thinks Caroline Pidgeon.

TfL Commissioner Peter Hendy told the panel of the committee’s previous session on October 11 that workers in London Bridge should perhaps, “…have a beer before you go home because you will not be able to get in the station for a bit” on days that an Equestrian event turns out up the river at Greenwich. Queues of 90 minutes are forecast for station access in London Bridge and Greenwich.

Down the river
TfL reaffirmed on Tuesday that they are trying to promote the river as an alternative route to and from events. An additional 40 scheduled trips will be made each weekday during the Games on River Thames passenger services, which already carry five million customers a year between central London and Greenwich.

But the transport committee on November 15 challenged why Games ticketholders will get free travel within zones 1–9 on London’s public transport network but will only receive discounted fares of 30 percent on river services.

“Using the river is a great way for tourists particularly to enjoy the sights and have a nice relaxing trip to their venue,” Pidgeon told me. “People are booking these trips now and I don’t blame them; I think [the river] needs to be promoted as well as the other modes of transport.”

As passenger demand management becomes better understood between now and the Games, Hugh Sumner, director of transport for the Olympic Development Authority, told the London Assembly to expect life as unusual.

“We’ll all be doing slightly different things in terms of where, when and how we’re travelling, but will it be a vibrant city next summer? Yes it will. We want to encourage people to have a great time in Summer 2012.”


(Caption on blog landing page: Paralympian Oscar Pistorius of South Africa poses for photographers during a photo-call near Tower Bridge in London September 7, 2012. REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett
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