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 rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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