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The other Olympics

Moving London during the games.

London Underground. Photograph: Getty Images

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.