London 2012 – Will better public transport lure people out of their cars?

Posted: 6 December 2011 | | No comments yet

In July 2005, London was confirmed as the host city for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. The bid promised “the most sustainable Games ever”. Cynics may say that a global event such as the Olympics is an inherently unsustainable thing to do; others believe it is a unique opportunity to push the sustainability agenda. As Chair of the Commission for a Sustainable London 2012 (the independent sustainability watchdog for the London 2012 Olympics) I am responsible for advising senior politicians and informing the public about the sustainability credentials of the London 2012 Games and legacy.

Let’s face it; not having an Olympics at all is the most sustainable thing to do. Call the whole thing off, pack it in. How can you possibly justify tens of thousands of tonnes of concrete and steel, millions of logistics and people movements, disruption to biodiversity, noise, dust and disruption to people’s lives in the name of sport? At the Commission we believe this is possible only if the net sustainability gains from the influence of London 2012 are greater than the sum of the losses.

Transport and logistics are at the heart of a sustainable London 2012. Without transport, the Games would not be possible, and transport provides a unique opportunity to deliver social, economic and environmental sustainability in ways previously unheard of. We may even get people talking to each other on the Tube!

The remediation of land in East London and the construction of the Olympic Park necessitated the transportation of millions of tonnes of material to and from the site. The Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) set the ambitious target of transporting 50% of materials by “sustainable means”; that is, by rail or water. As we near the end of the ‘Big Build’ I am pleased to report that this target will be comfortably exceeded and currently stands at 67%. Success was mostly due to the use of rail transport. The construction of rail heads on the site enabled the majority of materials to be delivered in a way that avoided adding to East London’s congestion problem, prevented London’s air quality standards falling even lower, and avoided significant carbon emissions. Although a temporary wharf was constructed, the primary role of water transport was to take waste away from site. In the contest between rail and water, rail was the winner in this case, being both cheaper and faster.

London 2012 will be the world’s first public transport Games of modern times. Most Olympic events will take place on the Olympic Park in East London, centred on the growing transport hub at Stratford. Other venues around London such as the Excel Centre, Wembley, Horse Guards Parade and the O2 Arena (to be renamed the North Greenwich Arena for the Games) are well served by public transport. The Games has enabled focus on over £5 billion of investment in public transport infrastructure; including upgrades to the London Underground network and improvements to the London Overground system, enabling an orbital rail route around London, connecting with Stratford. The Docklands Light Railway system has been upgraded to increase the number of carriages and to create a new station, Stratford International, to receive visitors to the Games. The Channel Tunnel Rail Link passes through Stratford, enabling London to welcome visitors from mainland Europe and encouraging people to use rail networks instead of polluting shorthaul flights. For me, the jewel in the crown is the Olympic Javelin service. During the Games this line will provide regular services between St Pancras and Stratford in just seven minutes. Anybody with experience of getting around London on public transport will recognise this as a technological achievement on a par with the moon landing and coding the human genome! It is anticipated that around eight million spectators will visit the Games, so although the level of investment is huge, the fear of a serious problem remains a significant risk and the transport team will need to be on top form to deal with every anticipated problem.

Spectators with tickets will enjoy free travel around London on the day of their ticket validity, but how do people from out of town get to the capital? A new part of the National Rail website has now been launched so that people are able to plan their trip to the Games using the train, helping them to take advantage of exclusive fare offers. Eurostar has also joined the Olympic family by becoming a commercial sponsor. This is beginning to form a compelling case for people to leave their cars behind and enjoy their visit by public transport. For those who still prefer to travel partway by car, there will be parkand- ride facilities around the M25.

This investment in infrastructure is not just for the Games, it is part of a much wider ambition to act as a catalyst for regeneration in East London. Stratford and the surrounding area will become one of the best-connected areas in Europe for public transport; it will boast excellent green space in an area approaching the size of Hyde Park, as well as having an efficient energy infrastructure and the best highspeed broadband connections available. This helps to achieve the ambitions of East London boroughs to have the same standard of living as their more prosperous neighbours.

Transport is not just about trains and buses. The active travel programme will be announced in autumn 2011 with a series of measures aimed at encouraging people to walk and cycle to the Games. Significant investments have been made to improve cycle access to the Park and the availability of bike hire and high quality information and way-finding should give people a healthier way of getting around.

I remain slightly concerned about how information will be provided to visitors. London can be a very confusing city and I hope a combination of hi-tech solutions will be supplemented by plenty of people around to help. I went to the 2008 Games in Beijing and was gratified by the hundreds of young, enthusiastic volunteers who greeted me with a smile and good English to help me on my way. The slight problem was they were not particularly well-informed but they were so lovely that they made me feel better about being lost. I hope London can replicate the warm welcome that Beijing achieved, plus some cold hard facts about how to get around the city. In my nightmares, failure to do this may result in hoards of visitors turning up in Stratford-on- Avon expecting to see the Games.

The big challenge for London 2012 relates to the roads. The Olympic route network will be a series of traffic-diverting measures and dedicated Games Lanes (but not road closures) aimed at enabling cars and buses transporting officials and competitors to arrive at their events on time. Whilst we cannot afford a repeat of the Atlanta Games, where athletes needed to warm up on buses stuck in gridlocked traffic, the consequential knock-on effect for London’s other traffic and the impact on the city’s already poor air quality must be considered. A campaign to discourage people from using the roads during the Games has already started, but in my experience Londoners do not like being told what to do. More draconian measures may be necessary to ensure that disruption does not reach a hiatus during the Games.

Most of the indicators point to a success. If London 2012 can truly deliver the public transport Games for the biggest peace-time movement of people and goods on earth, the cause for public transport will take a giant leap forward. Failure will damage London’s reputation as a great world city and will be the equivalent of an own goal in the competition against the car.


About the Author

In his role as Chair of the Commission for a Sustainable London 2012, Shaun McCarthy is setting an Olympic precedent – never before has an Olympic Games had an independent body to monitor and advise on sustainability issues. Shaun is also the Director of social enterprise Action Sustainability; a Commissioner on the London Sustainable Development Commission, an advisory group to the London Mayor; and an Associate of the Institute for Sustainability. However, Shaun’s route into the sustainability sector was an unorthodox one – he previously had lengthy careers with Shell UK and BAA. Shaun amassed over 20 years’ experience in commercial business and he brings this experience to the fore in his role as Chair of the Commission – working to provide assurance that environmental issues tie into commercial objectives. Shaun has been passionately promoting the Commission’s work both within industry sectors such as construction and manufacturing, and with NGO stakeholders. The Commission produces regular reports reviewing progress on the promise to make the 2012 Games ‘the greenest Games ever’. As the critical friend, the Commission is able to push for higher standards and hold bodies such as the ODA and LOCOG to account on issues such as recycling temporary materials, food waste and greenhouse gases. Shaun is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts (FRSA), and a Member of the Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply (MCIPS), Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (MIEMA) and the Institute of Directors (MIOD).

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