The other Olympics

Moving London during the games.

The Olympic and Paralympic legacy may largely be about venues and medals.  But there will be a transport legacy that could change the way we run our infrastructure for years to come says Alexander Jan of Arup.

Day six of the Thirtieth Olympiad. The newspapers were at last able to report Team GB winning some well deserved gold medals. The biggest upset has been an outbreak of shuttlecock shenanigans.   Sporting venues have won much acclaim from competitors and spectators.  It is gratifying for engineers, planners, designers (and the odd economist) when athletes start smashing world records in the buildings they have helped to make happen.   Transport setbacks have largely failed to materialise.  The debate over the games’ legacy has taken a back seat to the event itself.  But in the heat of the competition, the transformation to transport in and around the capital and longer term implications is perhaps worthy of some consideration.

An unscientific analysis suggests there have been at least a dozen changes to the way London works and moves.   Priority lanes have been painted on miles of the busiest roads.  Traffic flows have been reversed.  Pedestrian crossings have been closed off and others have sprung up. Parking restrictions have been radically changed.  Variable messaging has been used to allow cars to use bus lanes and – even more pragmatically - Olympic lanes when they’re not busy. London’s traffic lights have been reprogrammed to create ‘green waves’ to and from games venues.  Buses in the West End have been radically rerouted. Swathes of central London deliveries and refuse services are now confined to the small hours of the morning.  The DLR has a new timetable uploaded.  Home working has taken off.  Perhaps most remarkably, the tube is running a whole hour later into the night, throughout the games.

These changes are breathtaking. Policy makers and politicians have been talking about making them happen for decades.  Now they have actually been delivered and not just for an evening or weekend.  Some will run for nearly fifty days.  They’ve been put in place en masse by dozens of authorities, operators and regulators in Europe’s biggest city.  There has been the odd go slow protest and (largely successful) campaigns for Olympic bonuses. But the metropolis is not in the grip of gridlock, strikes or lockdowns.  The demands of special interests have been tackled.  

How has this been achieved?  There are probably three principal reasons.  Firstly, money.  Transport projects account for the best part of a billion pounds of the ODA’s costs.  Another £120-150m sits in the LOCOG operating budget. These sums are equivalent to around a third of TfL’s annual capital expenditure (including Crossrail).   Secondly, there is an immovable deadline for an event in full public gaze coupled to the political fortunes of a mayor and prime minister.  With the world watching, it has been imperative to do all things possible to deliver participants, presidents and spectators on time.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, has been the power and force of the state (an Act of Parliament no less),and a contract that has bound numerous players to an all-powerful Olympic Delivery Authority.

Together, these have transformed how London moves.  If later tubes and smoother traffic can be delivered for the Games, why not for Londoners?   After the closing ceremony, we should expect renewed appetite for taking on inefficient practices and ‘sacred cows’ on the network.   No doubt there a few scores will be settled.  Let us hope our politicians are as determined as Team GB is at winning medals, to delivering an attractive transport legacy for the capital’s commuters.

Alexander Jan is a consultant at Arup.

London Underground. Photograph: Getty Images

Alexander Jan is a consultant at Arup.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder