London 2012: Traffic Planning on an Olympic Scale

Transport for London's road movement plan for the Olympics 2012 has stirred up increasing criticism in recent months. Elisabeth Fischer finds out how the English capital will attempt to cope with the skyrocket traffic demand caused by one of the biggest sporting events in history.


With only one year to go until the kick-off to the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London, preparations in the English capital are fully underway. While most of the venues hosting the events have already been constructed, the Olympic delivery authority (ODA) will have to face numerous operational challenges in the months ahead – with road traffic movement one of the most urgent issues to be solved.

In recent months, the organisers' transport plan for road movement in the city has stirred up increasing criticism. At the beginning of July, former Mayor Ken Livingstone wrote in a letter to now Mayor Boris Johnson that parts of the capital "will go into shutdown mode" because of road restrictions put in place for the Games, and that arrangements for Olympic traffic are not balanced enough for ordinary Londoners. Newham Mayor Sir Robin Wales followed Livingstone's example some days later and called Transport for London's (TfL's) initiative "unacceptably poor", complaining about an "absence of detail."

The local road network is set to be incredibly busy and congested at certain times during the Games. The organisers hope the majority of the around 11 million spectators will travel to the venues in London and other places all over the UK using public transport. However, traffic disruptions are expected to be widespread, not only affecting commuters but also local residents, businesses and freight.

London's transport plan

"There is nothing bigger than this," said ODA director of transport planning Hugh Summer at the 'The 2012 Games: get informed, get inspired, get involved' event in London on 8 July 2011.

"It's not happening at the end of a three-lane motorway ten miles out of London, it's happening right in the heart of the city."

"We expect an enormous amount of spectators, an enormous amount of participants and an enormous workforce approaching 200,000 people, as well as a huge global audience."

The challenge to successfully move around Olympic staff, athletes and spectators in addition to the ever so busy traffic in London calls for a sophisticated transport plan.

Building on key principles that prioritise athletes, guarantee public transport to the venues and allow an accessible and sustainable Games, Transport for London, the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games (LOCOG), the ODA and other delivery authorities have worked for the past five years to ensure "the smooth flow of key people to and from the Games."

In autumn 2007, the first edition of the Olympic transport plan was published. Since then, the plan has been adjusted several times. TfL games director Mark Evers describes the work as "challenging". Unlike previous Games, these Olympics and Paralympics are happening in the centre of the city with events hosted in five boroughs across it.

"It's not happening at the end of a three-lane motorway ten miles out of London, it's happening right in the heart of the city," he said. "In some respect, dealing with the public transport and with the DLR is really easy but when it comes to the road network that we need to share with many different users, that's where it gets really complicated."

As part of the arrangements an Olympic route network (ORN) and Paralympic route network (PRN) have been set up, which will come into force from June 2012 until September 2012.

Over the past three years extensive planning has gone into the 108ml long routes, which will not only operate in London but also extend to and around Eton Dorney, Hadleigh Farm, Lee Valley White Water Centre, Weymouth and Portland, where several events will take place.

The main purpose of the £25m grid of roads is to make sure that 82,000 VIPs, athletes, officials, media staff and emergency services can travel to and from the Olympic sites traffic-free. Around a third of the ORN will be Games lanes, which will be off limits to residents and public transport during of the Games. The rest will only partly be closed.

Creating sustainable routes

The ORN first came into use during the Sydney Games in 2000, after athletes in Atlanta in 1996 missed their own events due to traffic problems. "Atlanta has been living with the legacy of a poor transport network ever since," said Mark Evers.

"To enforce the routes, a variety of signs and road markings will be used to give priority to authorised vehicles."

"We don't want to have that and put proportionate measures in place to make sure that the Games family can get around while London keeps functioning."

The core ORN is the main roads between the Games family accommodation, the Olympic Park and the other venues and will be heavily used throughout the Games.

The venue-specific ORN consists of routes to, in and outside of London and will typically be operational from the early morning until the evening when competition is taking place. If anything goes wrong, an alternative Olympic route network (AORN) will come into place.

In addition to that, local area management plans (LATMP) regulate the road network around each individual venue to make sure traffic keeps moving during the events. The last part of London's transport plan forms the movement management area (MMA), which is a large area in central London where increased pedestrian and vehicle movement is expected to take place.

To enforce the routes, a variety of signs and road markings will be used to give the necessary priority to authorised vehicles on the ORN and PRN, and to redirect other road users in a safe manner. The signs, which are based on recognised and legally enforceable standards and techniques, will also be used to indicate temporary lanes and other measures along the route.

Testing the road networks

In order to have an early warning system of problems most likely to occur during the Games, several network tests have been conducted over the past months. The original operational plan has been adjusted a number of times and further testing will take place throughout the upcoming year to ensure the target of a 'smooth flow' can be achieved.

"Traffic modelling information is arriving in a sporadic, fragmented and piecemeal fashion."

Both the Olympics and Paralympics will feature road events on public roads within London, which will cause further disruptions and closures of roads. Therefore, the ORN and PRN will be tested in upcoming Olympic trial events in and around London, such as the London-Surrey Cycle Classic on 14 August, which will pass through six boroughs.

Mark Evers is convinced the test runs will help to further improve the London transport plan: "The whole purpose of the test launches is to make sure that we end up facilitating the plan and that all the different cross-movements between pedestrians and vehicles are occurring as safely and with as little impact on the overall area as possible," he said.

Call for greater public information

Ken Livingstone and Sir Robin Wales not only criticised the road management plan itself but claimed there was a general lack of information for the public, local businesses and the freight industry. "The overall picture remains unclear. Traffic modelling information is arriving in a sporadic, fragmented and piecemeal fashion," wrote Wales in his letter to Boris Johnson in July 2011.

The London Assembly warned in April there is a lack of public awareness with drivers risking being fined £200 every time they accidentally use the ORN and have repeatedly called for detailed figures about the network. TfL however is claiming that it has been writing since March to residents and businesses affected by the ORN and trying to get information out to the public through local drop-in centres.

"We want to hear what people think about this. We're in the middle of an engagement process," said Mark Evers. "We are looking to organise the MMA and the ORN partly through this public engagement. Once we've received our feedback we will do our redesign and we will make sure to take into account as many suggestions as possible. Then we will go out to the general public to make sure that everyone understands what is going to happen during Games time. Clearly, it will cause disruption and we want to encourage people to start thinking about it now."