On a recent rainy morning, I stood with half a dozen commuters waiting—and waiting—for one of London’s famous red double-decker buses. (So iconic is the bus, it was used as a symbol of the city at the 2008 Olympic handover show in Beijing.) After 15 minutes people began checking the time and heaving audible sighs. For Brits, who deserve their reputations as patient queue-standers, these are glaring signs of barely-suppressed anger.
When, at last, a bus rounded the corner, we fumbled for our Oyster cards – the pay-as-you-go digital cards used on much of London’s public transport. Yet, rather than stopping, the bus careened past, too overloaded to carry further passengers.
Two more buses would leave us standing in the drizzle before a third stopped to let us on. The relief was short-lived. Crammed like livestock on the way to slaughter, we endured a long, slow journey through a maze of roadworks and diversions that added to the gridlock.
Welcome to London, home of the 2012 Olympics. The Games haven’t started yet, but transport delays and warnings of what’s to come are already starting to irk Londoners and worry visitors. Shortly after arriving in London on July 16, U.S. hurdler Kerron Clement noted on Twitter that his bus driver had gotten lost en route to the Olympic Village, tweeting, “Um, so we’ve been lost on the road for 4hrs. Not a good first impression London.”
Meanwhile, other commuters were simultaneously dealing with their own delays. The Olympic Route Network — a system of priority lanes covering 109 miles of road, designed to ensure competitors and VIPs arrive at the venues on time — opened its first lanes on the on the main motorway from Heathrow. But as ordinary vehicles are forbidden from using the designated route, and face a $200 fine if they’re caught doing so, the newly-opened lanes brought traffic to a near-halt as drivers lined-up to merge out of them.
While the majority of Olympic events are scheduled to take place in the eastern reaches of the city – the Olympic Park is in Stratford, an area about six miles from the city center – many visitors are expected to stay in, and commute from, central London. And to accommodate the 3 million additional journeys per day that are expected on public transport, the city hopes to coax locals into changing their habits. The city has launched a public information campaign called “Get Ahead of the Games,” to persuade commuters to avoid public transport when possible, walk or re-route.
That might create a little more elbow room, but only if transport runs according to plan. And London transport rarely runs according to plan. That’s leaving aside delays caused by terror alerts and industrial disputes. In February the city staged a drill at a disused Underground station, as a way to prepare procedures in case of a terror attack. The authorities will be especially vigilant during the Games. A carelessly abandoned bag or car parked in the wrong spot could trigger evacuations and diversions. In June, a London tourist who had illegally parked near the Houses of Parliament learned of heightened terror awareness the hard way: his vehicle was deemed suspicious and police detonated it with a controlled explosion.
(MORE: The Soggy London Games?)
On June 22, there was another source of delay as a city-wide bus strike clogged the streets with private cars. The Unite union is campaigning for the £500 ($778) or greater bonus that transport workers on the Underground, Overground and rail networks have accepted to sweeten work during the Games. London buses carry around 6.5 million passengers every day.
The authorities are quick to defend London’s preparations, pointing out that nearly $10 billion over the past seven years has been poured into repairs and improvements on the city’s network of trains and Underground metro lines. Locals are skeptical that the investment will prevent massive snarl-ups. And that, more than any campaign run by the government, may deliver the desired result and keep Londoners off London transport and roads during the Olympics. A survey by foreign exchange firm Travelex found that a third of Brits who’ve booked summer holidays abroad chose their dates with the idea of avoiding the Games.
For those sticking around during the Games and especially for those visiting London, there are a few things to keep in mind when traveling around the city this summer.
Air: The country’s largest airport that will see the arrival of the majority of overseas visitors, Heathrow has been plagued by complaints over delays recently. A combination of Border Agency staff cuts and more rigorous checks on passports have led to seemingly endless lines. In April, non-European Union visitors waited as long as 90 minutes to pass through UK border controls, though several passengers reported waiting longer than two hours. Keep in mind this was well before the flood of Olympic traffic was set to arrive. Similar reports have emerged from the city’s other, smaller airports. The authorities claim increases in staffing at border controls during the Games will solve the problem.
Tip: We’re skeptical. Our advice: pack your patience and carry a good book.
Rail: The high-speed bullet train line, dubbed the Javelin, will run for the duration of the Games, taking passengers from St. Pancras Rail Station to the Olympic Park in a mere seven minutes. One problem: the Javelin has an estimated capacity of 25,000 passengers an hour, yet a potential 800,000 spectators are expected to visit the Olympic Park. An extra 4,000 scheduled trains have been added across all rail lines in London and the Southeast to help manage additional traffic.
Tip: The busiest hubs are expected to be London Bridge and Waterloo stations, so check this website for alternative routes. Liverpool Street Station, for example, offers rail service to Stratford near the Olympic Park and is likely to be less congested. And if you happen to find yourself at St. Pancras but unable to board the Javelin, there’s always the Underground at King’s Cross next door.
The Underground a.k.a. tube: A large percentage of the daily 12 million journeys made on London’s public transport systems are on the underground metro system, known as the tube. That’s projected to swell by a further 3 million during the Games, with busiest routes the Jubilee and Central lines to the Olympic Park at Stratford. “Hotspots,” identified by Transport for London such as London Bridge, Canary Wharf and Bank stations, are likely to be packed; estimated wait times to even board the Tube could be longer than 30minutes at London Bridge throughout much of the Games.
Tip: As with rail stations, avoid the busiest hubs. Tube stations in central London are typically in walking distance of each other so it’s worth getting off a stop either side of the designated hotspots. And the tube can be hotter than a sauna. Carry a bottle of water.
Buses: With over 700 bus routes in London, the biggest dilemma facing journeys by bus – aside from potential strikes – is traffic.
Tip: It’s important to keep in mind that the traffic congestion affecting drivers during the Games will also affect buses. Check this website for live travel information on buses .
Private cars and taxis: The special Games lanes have already wreaked havoc on the one of city’s major motorways and there could be more to come. Parking, bus stops, deliveries and crosswalks in this network will be restricted or scaled back. Additional sections of roads will be temporarily closed throughout the Games, to accommodate events such as cycling road races, the triathlon technical rehearsal, triathlons, Olympic marathons and the Paralympic marathons. As for London’s famous black cabs, they’re considered safer and more reliable than the mini cabs that dart around the city. It’s not a cheap way to travel, however, and expected traffic delays could boost the cost even higher.
Tip: Avoid, whenever possible, driving through central London or to Games venues and keep up to date on road closures by checking .
Biking: London has bicycle hire stations dotted around the city where renting a bike for short periods of time is an inexpensive and convenient way to get around.
Tip: Plot your route in advance to avoid heavily-trafficked roads and consider investing in a helmet.
Walking: Depending on where you’re staying and distances permitting, getting around by foot could be the most pleasant of options. It’ll certainly be the cheapest.
Tip: No matter the forecast, carry an umbrella. It may be summer, but this is London, and this July has already set new records for rainfall.