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.
The city's effort to simulate Olympic-level congestion leaves commuters frustrated and late.
First came the billboards. Paid for by Olympic travel body Get Ahead of the Games, these have been warning Londoners that their city’s transport network will be overstretched during the Olympics and that they should consider alternative travel routes. The subtext of these messages? – “Go away. Please go away."
Apparently these warnings haven’t quite been enough to scare the willies out of commuters, so today transport bosses tried out a Games-period simulation at King's Cross and London Bridge Stations during the morning rush hour. This involved creating pedestrian one-way systems, closing many exits and refusing entry to people trying to get onto the subway once the inevitable clots of passengers started to develop.
The effect of disrupting these stations is hard to overestimate – King's Cross St. Pancras and London Bridge Stations are among the city's most busy, one the terminus for trains from Scotland and everywhere in between, the other serving a drainage basin covering half of England’s most populous area, the South East. If this were New York, the equivalent would be half closing Penn Station and Grand Central Terminal, except that rail traffic is proportionately even more important in London.
The results, if Twitter is anything to go by, have been mayhem, with reams of commuters in despair at this window onto what upcoming Olympic congestion might mean. Already, the trending photo of a man carrying a makeshift sign* has become the symbol of the general shambles. To make things worse, the massed crowds waiting to be drip-fed through the few remaining unblocked exits have been treated to a cheery PSA voiced by Mayor Boris Johnson urging them to "get ahead of the Games."
Still if chaos is coming, I suppose transport staff should know in advance what it will look like – and by lunchtime staff seemed to have their new system very much under control, suggesting the rehearsal was worth it. Deep down, however, I don’t really believe that the morning warned of the chaos to come. All these threats of transport Armageddon seem to be more than anything an exercise in deterring transport use by creating mass anxiety. It’s a policy that, judging by the many Twitterers vowing to work from home during the games, is starting to have an effect. If London’s transport authorities keep up with their portents of doom, Olympic visitors will find trains so empty they’ll wonder if London hasn’t been purged of humans by a pre-Olympic zombie assault. Who knows – maybe that’s what Get Ahead of the Games is planning next?
Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified the message seen on a man's makeshift sign as including the word "Jesus." In fact it read "National Rail."
Photo credit: Luke MacGregor/Reuters