Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Organizers of the Summer Games are finding it difficult to balance their own needs with that of the host city.
Do the needs of Olympic officials trump those of the sick and elderly? The answer from the Olympic committee organizing this summer’s London games seems to be yes.
Last month National Health Service London, the British capital’s overarching health body, made a request to Olympic organizers to allow ambulances access to this summer’s temporary network of special Olympic traffic lanes [PDF]. These lanes will be carved from major city arteries for 17 days during the Games to allow speedy transfers between Olympic venues for athletes and officials. The London Olympic Committee for the Olympic Games (LOCOG), however, has decided that ambulances on non-urgent business will not be given permission to use them.
While ambulances and fire trucks responding to emergency calls will be allowed into the lanes, blood supplies and non-critical sick people in transit may not. Exactly how bad a call this is remains a moot point – non-urgent ambulance calls must, after all, sit in traffic with everyone else in Britain on a normal day. Still, with London’s roads due to be packed to hemorrhage point during the Games, healthcare transports risk being mired in semi-permanent jams, and the decision has been widely interpreted as a victory for LOCOG over the little people.
The publicity around the decision has hardly helped the popularity of the much-resented Olympic Road Network, arguably the Games’ least popular aspect so far among Londoners. Not only will this network squeeze already busy traffic into fewer lanes, it will frequently do so along roads especially busy with people skirting the edge of central London to avoid its £10 daily congestion charge. With some exceptions, Londoners managed to fight off plans to smash freeways through the city’s 19th century core in the 1960s, and many of the routes on the proposed network are as narrow as four lanes already. Setting VIP lanes aside for athletes-only might get a more tolerant attitude from the public, but Olympic officials will also use them, as will sponsors like McDonald's and controversial Dow Chemical.
It doesn’t stop there. A recent documentary for Britain’s Channel Four uncovered travel agents who sell expensive luxury Olympic packages promising undercover reporters day and night access to the lanes at a (very high) price, even when not travelling to Olympic events. For Londoners, the whole thing brings to mind ugly images of multi-millionaire junk food salesmen and other corporate freeloaders in limousines racing past traffic jams filled with ailing kidney dialysis patients and oxygen deliveries – quite possibly cackling to themselves as they do so.
Suggestions that LOCOG decision on ambulances will actually endanger lives seem far-fetched, however, when their drivers always have the option to turn on their sirens. LOCOG has also sworn to investigate travel agents peddling VIP lane access, insisting no such deals are possible. Still, the proposals have helped cement popular perceptions of Olympic officials as entitled, imperious meddlers, blithely rearranging London to their own tastes as if it were some sort of endlessly mutable CGI apparition.
Olympic VIP lanes have been a feature of every Olympics since Sydney’s in 2000. Developed after Atlanta’s 1996 Games proved a transport disaster where athletes missed events (due as much to poorly briefed drivers as to traffic), London’s lanes look relatively non-invasive compared to those in Athens or Beijing. The Greeks opened their VIP lanes 11 days prior to their Games, the Chinese 19 days prior, which makes London’s lane openings just two days prior to the Games’ start seem rather apologetic. So will Londoners come round to the idea? The symbolic gesture of opening the network to non-emergency ambulances would certainly help.