Olympic Traffic Pushes London to the Brink

Over 235,000 visitors will arrive in Heathrow today, putting the city's specially designed transportation network to the test.

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Paul Hackett/Reuters

After years of preparation, a slow drum roll of publicity and a steadily building mix of nerves and excitement among residents, things finally began in earnest today.

Monday marked the official start of London’s Olympic travel chaos. With athletes starting to arrive at Heathrow, the first section of the Olympic Route Network, linking the airport with West London, was shut down to all but official Olympic traffic this morning. The alleged result was a 32-mile back-up on the highway for traffic approaching the start of the Games Lanes. Even on good days this highway’s entry to London is a bottleneck – it connects London not just with Heathrow but with all Southwest England and Wales – so taking a lane out of action turns it into something more like an hourglass.

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Still, with Heathrow set to experience its busiest day ever, at least the lanes will be put to good use. Over 235,000 visitors are scheduled to arrive today, and the airport predicted that 40,000 people more than usual would pass through it. But it's lucky that any lanes, Olympic or otherwise, are currently open at all. In a cruel twist that must have cost Olympic planners a few nights’ sleep, cracks in the highway’s overhead section appeared earlier this month after relentlessly rainy weather. The road re-opened following emergency repairs just three days ago. With the main road connection between city and airport severed, it all would have been so much worse.

Sectioning off the Games Lanes doesn’t seem to have ironed out Olympic transport problems just yet, however. In echoes of Atlanta ’96, freshly arrived America athlete Kerron Clements tweeted to complain that, after four hours on the road, his transportation had still failed to locate the Olympic Village.

While drivers caught in tailbacks might disagree, intolerable Olympic pressure on London doesn’t really seem to be the problem per se. Pressure on London’s transport network is pretty intense on any average day. The resentment of Londoners against the Games Lanes, it could be argued, is of people whose tolerance is already stretched by the city they live in, wondering exactly what will have to give to make more space. It seems the authorities are wondering as much as anybody, especially as at least some arrangements planned seem unworkable. Speaking this Sunday, Britain’s sports minister promised that Games Lanes would be reconsidered if they resulted in gridlock. Underneath, I suspect many Londoners experience a perverse streak of pleasure in the arrival of major disruption. After months of frantic preparation that have still left few visible effects beyond the Olympic Park, at least London is starting to look like a city where something big is about to happen.

Photo credit: Paul Hackett/Reuters

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