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Source: Daily Telegraph
By Sue Cameron
Want to know what’s really worrying people in No 10 right now? Zil lanes. With the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations behind us and the 2012 Games only seven weeks away, Downing Street is focusing on what is going to happen to London when the city is inundated not just with millions of sports fans and 10,000 athletes, but with a 50,000-strong army of media folk, sponsors and Olympic officials.
All those belonging to this so-called Olympic family will be able to travel across London using dedicated traffic lanes that will be closed to everyone else, unlike during the successful Jubilee. It will be reminiscent of Soviet Russia when lanes on all major roads in Moscow were reserved for government officials in their Zil cars. Ordinary Muscovites had to wait in traffic jams while the dignitaries sped past. The fear is not just that something similar could happen here, but that the backlash from Londoners will be greater than was bargained for by the Olympic organisers or the politicians.
“Transport is going to be a nightmare,” says John Whittingdale, Tory chairman of the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee. “There is a real risk of people sitting there stationary in their cars and then some black BMW goes whizzing past in a near-empty lane.”
Admittedly, the British are a phlegmatic bunch. Look how tens of thousands of people waited patiently, often in the cold and the rain, standing for hours to catch a glimpse of the Queen over the Jubilee weekend. What they will do for their Queen, however, who has given 60 years of service, is one thing. Whether they will be prepared to show the same forbearance to executives from the likes of McDonald’s and Coca-Cola or to Olympic bigwigs is quite another matter. Apart from anything else, there are so many of them: 6,000 officials, 5,000 technical officials – judges, referees, timekeepers – a 5,000-strong contingent from the International Olympic Committee and 25,000 sponsors.
A trip round the Olympic Park, where only a few finishing touches are now required, is truly impressive. Yet as well as different arenas, it has some huge corporate centres for hospitality. One of the marvels it boasts is the biggest McDonald’s in the world. Londoners will not mind making way on the roads for athletes – most of whom will be on site at Olympic Park – but they are unlikely to show the same tolerance to corporate executives and their friends. Why can’t they go by Tube, like everyone else?
The Zil lanes were one of the conditions laid down by the IOC for the Games to be held in London. They stem from the major foul-up on transport at the 1996 Atlanta Games when some athletes missed their events. Clearly nobody would wish that to happen here. But Zil lanes are just not British. A less draconian solution should have been found. It is true that some athletes will have to travel from the main stadium at Stratford in east London to other venues either for training or for events, such as tennis at Wimbledon. Transport for London also claims that the Zil lanes will be busy with “up to” – wonderfully weasel phrase that – 1,300 vehicles an hour using them. We shall see.
What we can be sure of is that 30 miles of London’s busiest roads, including the Mall, Park Lane and parts of the Embankment will have Zil lanes which will be closed to ordinary traffic from 6am to midnight. Any unauthorised vehicle venturing into them will face a penalty charge, originally set at £200 but now reduced to £130.
Small wonder that the arrangements have provoked cynicism from some critics, not least London’s cabbies. “The whole thing is a jolly,” says Steve McNamara of the Licensed Taxi Drivers’ Association. “Officials could have stayed in hotels at Canary Wharf – just over a mile away from the main stadium. Instead, many are in Park Lane – an 18-mile round trip. Hardly the green Olympics that we were promised.”
Gridlock is being predicted at some stations as well as on the roads. With an extra three million people expected to use the Tube, regular commuters are being warned to stay away from some stations, such as London Bridge, altogether, and where possible to work from home. Yet there is a conspicuous absence of the word “please” and there is no apology for the inconvenience being caused. It is as if the residents of London, who are, after all, helping to pay for the Games, are simply seen as an inconvenience. Even at this late stage, the organisers need to change their tone and do it fast.
One of the things they seem to have forgotten is that Britain’s capital is not like other cities that have hosted the Games. Even in normal times, London and Paris are the most visited cities in the world. What is more, Londoners cannot easily be cowed by officialdom, Olympic or otherwise. In 2008, for example, the Chinese shut all factories within a 100-mile radius of Beijing to ensure there was no pollution to mar their Games. China will have had no trouble with Zil lanes.
London is different. Some believe that the Coalition missed a trick months ago when it could have announced an austerity Games with no extra frills. It is too late for that, though there are signs that some efforts are being made to lessen the impact of the Zil lanes. We are now told that – when they are less busy – they will be opened up to other drivers. It is a welcome move, but it may not be enough to assuage a backlash from Londoners who find their city grinding to a halt while the privileged few take precedence. No 10 is right to be worried.