It is the issue that has nagged at the minds of the organisers of London 2012 from the very beginning: can they get people to the Games on time? And home again, while at the same time not condemning the inhabitants of the capital to two weeks of traffic jams and increasing frustration with the greatest sporting show on earth?
Locog – the London organising committee – may have its worst fears realised with a report today warning that the opening weekend of the Games could see a combination of circumstances leading to the capital's being caught in the "perfect traffic storm". The city will also have to cope with increased congestion of over 30 per cent throughout the Games, meaning journeys that will take up to a third longer.
Transport and security have always been the issues of greatest concern surrounding the Games. Last month, security costs were revealed to have spiralled beyond £1bn and now scientists specialising in traffic analysis are forecasting possible major problems on the roads in and around London.
The Games open on 27 July, a time of year that sees a usual rise in traffic as the summer holiday season begins. With around 80,000 attending the opening ceremony at the Olympic Park in east London and several thousand more making for live sites around the capital to watch on big screens, it has the capacity to cause major congestion. The following day, the Games begin with the road race around south-west London and into the centre of the city – an event that led to serious traffic problems when it was tested last summer.
"Traditionally this is one of the busiest holiday getaway weekends of the year; combine this with the Olympic opening ceremony and the men's road cycling race and we could have the perfect traffic storm," said Greg Hallsworth, lead scientist and traffic analyst for Inrix, the traffic specialist which has produced a report on the impact of the Games.
The report's conclusion warns: "The event could get off to the worst possible start, with all the negative publicity that would ensue." It adds that the opening weekend has the "recipe for transport chaos".
Keith Peat, of the Association of British Drivers, said the report made "gloomy reading" for motorists. "It is difficult to understand how planners have failed to grasp the significance of this holiday weekend," he said. "It will affect those travelling to holiday destinations, via the M25 to places like Gatwick, Heathrow, the Channel Ports, or to the west and ports like Portsmouth and Southampton plus destinations such as the West Country."
The report predicts an increase of 33 per cent in traffic congestion in late July and early August, with speeds on the core routes around London – the roads that will have special Olympic lanes reserved for nearly 80,000 officials, athletes, media and sponsors – slowed to an average of 12mph.
An hour's journey in Greater London will take on average 12 minutes longer, for those on the core network at least 20 minutes more.
The other possible flashpoint comes on 3 and 4 August, with a host of gold medals to be settled in blue-riband swimming and athletic events. A million people are expected to travel in, out and around London on each of those two days.
The Olympic Route Network (ORN) consists of 109 miles of roads in London, as well as 170 miles around the country for events such as the sailing in Weymouth. In London 35 miles of the ORN will be accessible only to members of the "Games family" throughout the Olympics.
Transport for London (TfL) has predicted that 70 per cent of traffic in the capital will be unaffected, but acknowledges that there will be disruption with an extra three million journeys a day around the city. London will have to cope with around five million visitors, most of whom will travel in and out on a daily basis. Around half a million extra visitors are expected to stay in the city.
The ORN is expected to be in place two days before the Games begin, but Inrix experts believe that will be too late for the public to become familiarised with the lanes. Motorists will be fined for improper use, with £200 the suggested penalty. Introducing an ORN is a condition of hosting the Games. The network costs about £25m to set up and run, funding that comes from the public purse via the Olympic Delivery Authority.
For the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver the system was introduced a week before Games time, in Athens for the 2004 summer Games it was 11 days prior to the opening ceremony. Analysts from Inrix – which provides the BBC's travel information and also provides data for 22 US state governments – believe two days is not sufficient time for road users to become accustomed to the system. For many drivers the first experience will come during Games time, and that has the potential to add further to possible chaos. "There has to be time to adapt," said Andrea Day, a traffic analyst for the company. "Teething problems will coincide with the first week of competition."
"We're very concerned about the road closures," said Steve McNamara, spokesman for the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association, whose members cannot use the ORN. "These predictions highlight major weaknesses." Fears have been expressed that taxi fares in the capital could rise as much as fourfold as a result of congestion and diversions.
Public transport is planned to take much of the strain of the incomers but the use of park-and-ride systems in Essex and Kent to bring spectators into the Games in Stratford is another area highlighted as a potential problem. The report says: "The potential for problems to arise here is only too clear and it is hoped that organisers have not miscalculated their ability to process the large numbers of vehicles which will arrive at the park-and-ride sites." It predicts "significant congestion" on the M25.
The reputational damage to London caused by transport problems has been a consistent issue for Lord Coe, chairman of Locog. Atlanta's reputation was severely battered by transport problems during the 1996 Olympics. Lord Coe told The Independent two years ago that the potential damage to London would be "profound" if the transport system failed to cope.
TfL has spent £6.5bn on upgrading its transport infrastructure and is urging people to look at working from home as it seeks the reduction of around 20 per cent in commuting journeys it estimates is required to allow the system to cope.
Ticket resale site restored, up to a point
The Olympic ticket resale website finally went back online yesterday after the initial launch earlier this month ended in chaos.
Those with unwanted tickets from last year's lottery have until 3 February to sell them back for the same price they were bought.
2012 organisers Locog will then put the tickets back on sale in April, along with 1.3 million others being made available for the first time. Locog commercial director Chris Townsend apologised for the delay and said: "We made a commitment to our customers to give them a safe, secure, legal way of selling Olympic and Paralympic tickets which they are no longer able to use. We are delivering on that and will buy any tickets that customers are no longer able to use at face value."