Bike, bus, Tube or car? The Independent's journalists race to the Olympic start line
What's the fastest way to Stratford now the Olympic lanes are in force? We sent four reporters across town by bike, bus, Tube and car to find out
It was the day the "gridlock Games" were supposed to bring misery to the streets and subways of central London. As the Olympics countdown clock showed there were just 48 hours to go, 34 miles of Olympic lanes came into force around the capital for the sole use of the armies of athletes and officials heading to the Olympic Park. Fines of £130 awaited exasperated drivers and cyclists who strayed across the white lines.
To discover just what scenes of suffering lay above and below ground, our team of writers ignored the advice of Olympic organisers to race across the capital.
We set off at the height of morning rush hour, 8.15am, by car (Sean O'Grady), bicycle (Simon Usborne), train (Kevin Rawlinson) and boat (Poppy McPherson) to determine the quickest, most painless way to traverse the capital from its centre to the Olympic Park in the East.
Millions will embark on similar journeys in the next fortnight. How bad could it be?
Commuters with more critical journeys yesterday found 12-mile tailbacks on the M4 approach to London and severe Tube delays on several lines. Some major roads were twice as busy as normal, traffic analysts said, with jams on main roads into London including the A4 and the A40, while Tube trains creaked in the heat. Transport for London played down the reports, saying traffic in the centre of the city overall was 13.5 per cent lighter than on a normal weekday. It insisted "compliance levels have been high" on Games Lanes, the majority of which remained open to all traffic.
The most unusual transport difficulty was the breakdown of the new £45m cable car in east London, trapping passengers 300ft above the Thames. More than 30 cars, carrying around 60 people, came to a halt due to a technical problem with the Emirates Air Line at 11.45am. Passengers were evacuated after a 30 minute delay and the system ran normally last night.
Gold: 'The journey was easy, so why are bikes not welcome at the Games?'
Mode of transport Boris bike
Time 33 minutes
Distance 8.2 miles
On a morning when cars crawled through parts of a sweltering city like mobile ovens, I breezed east as far as Trafalgar Square before my car-driving colleague had even reached for his air-con. I paid the price, however: I may have been the fastest across London, but I was also by several litres the sweatiest.
But who cares? This is a summer to be inspired by Britain's heroes of the track and road. If I'm going to watch Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton do their thing at the velodrome what better way to get there than by bike?
It won't necessarily be that easy. My eight-mile journey started well, despite a minor diversion around The Mall, where organisers are preparing for Saturday's men's road race (go Cavendish!). No bother: I took a parallel street and continued via Trafalgar Square to the Thames.
The route east past the Tower of London and up the A11 is straightforward, if busy, but tip a wheel into an Olympic lane and cyclists face the same £130 fine as drivers. I stuck to bus lanes and Mayor Boris Johnson's bright-blue "cycle superhighways", and made good progress.
Then things got complicated. I was riding a "Boris Bike," as many would, but his bike rental scheme isn't welcome at the Games. The nearest docking stations are a 20-minute walk away. Nobody wants to see Barclays-sponsored bikes at an event sewn up by Lloyds TSB, right?
It would be easier on your own bike, but that will be banned from the Olympic Park, too. Bike parking areas are being set up outside the east and west gates but the main racks will be in Victoria Park, also a 20-minute walk from the velodrome. The cycling was quick, but the time it will take spectators to park their bikes and reach the Games is anyone's guess. Take a change of T-shirt.
Silver: 'Packed, hot and unfriendly – then things got a little uncomfortable'
Mode of transport Tube
Time 45 minutes
Distance 10 miles
The Tube can never quite be described as comfortable – but this journey was easy. Yes it was still packed, hot and unfriendly. But there's not much Locog could have done about those longstanding problems without digging up central London.
I descended the steps into the Underground at Hyde Park Corner. One train came and went, too full to board. The next, though full, was not getting away that easily: I pushed my way on. Eight valuable minutes had been lost, but a seamless change to the Jubilee Line won back some time and we were soon bound for Stratford. My fellow passengers were Olympics volunteers also on their way to the Park to start work. The seats were all taken so that meant standing – but a welcome breeze was blowing through the carriage. True to form, London's morning commuters were engrossed in iPads, smartphones, Kindles and even books. But not conversation. No one spoke a word as we passed Westminster, Waterloo and Southwark on our way to London Bridge. It was there that things got a little uncomfortable.
London Bridge is one of the capital's busiest stations. An influx of people sent the temperature rising. Only at Canary Wharf did the carriages empty, making the final delay at Canning Town bearable. It was there that I received the text message I didn't want: one from Simon Usborne which read, simply: "Win."
My journey to Stratford, made using the wonder of mechanised underground transport and passed in relative comfort, took a full 12 minutes longer than a man on a bike.
Bronze: 'Just when you thought it couldn't get any worse to drive in London...'
Mode of transport Honda Civic
Time 47 minutes
Distance 9.3 miles
Driving around London on the first day of what might be termed a "roads lockdown" gave me an excellent impression of what it might be like to live in a once-proud city that had suddenly some under the heel of a foreign invader, or perhaps some home-grown unelected, unaccountable political elite that had chosen to arrogate such power unto itself that ordinary citizens were no longer able to use the roads that they have bought and paid for with their taxes. Not for nothing do these detestable "Games Lanes" remind us of the old Soviet Union and its ZiL lanes reserved for Communist Party apparatchiks.
The traffic enforcement officials I encountered on my journey were polite and helpful, but I couldn't help seeing them as Quislings, there to do the bidding of the people who won't even let a local flower shop use the Olympics symbol to drum up a bit of business.
I made it across central London in about 47 minutes. Most of the traffic lights that usually hold one up along the main east-west arteries were suspended, as were many of the turns in and out of the lanes. The Olympics lanes were pretty empty, but maybe they will fill up. I felt sorry for pedestrians; their crossings have been closed off and rows of bollards and grilles fencing off central reservations mean that if you live in the East End you will not be able to cross many major roads for the foreseeable future.
Off the Olympics route it is another, slower story. Because the traffic lights and turnings have all been altered it is virtually impossible to cross the river, for example, and side roads around the route will be horrendously congested, as I found on my journey back home. I never thought that driving in London could get much worse. Of course we can't have the Games without the special lanes, but for those of us who see the Olympics as an overblown running race, that is no great comfort as we sit in jams, missing appointments, and being made late for work in this gold-medal traffic tragedy.
Did not qualify: 'No signal failures, no jams, and no first place, but the river won me over'
Mode of transport Bus, river bus
Time 77 minutes
Distance 8.7 miles
Why toil and trek to get to the Games when you can sail there? The 02, which will host the gymnastics, basketball and wheelchair basketball finals, has a dock on its doorstep for river buses – surely one of the capital's most leisurely and under-used means of transport. From Hyde Park, the quickest route to the river is by bus and foot. I caught the N9 to Piccadilly Circus, dashed down Haymarket past Trafalgar Square and make Embankment pier in under 20 minutes. After dodging two dishevelled, boisterous loiterers I followed confusing (but correct) advice to catch the first westbound boat – it turns back on itself.
The engine was loud and stank of diesel but it was a beautiful ride on one of the hottest days of the year. The onboard bar and Wi-Fi were welcome distractions. There were no signal failures, leaves on the line or traffic jams. I had the deck almost to myself, but the skipper is prepared for an onslaught - Transport For London has put on special boats reserved for Games ticket-holders during peak times.
The journey takes just over an hour, but feels far quicker as we cruise by landmarks: the Houses of Parliament; the London Eye; Tower Bridge; before snaking past Canary Wharf and towards Greenwich, where a short stroll takes me to the doors of the arena.
Slow and steady might not win the race, but if the Games are about getting ahead of the hassle, river boat is the way to travel.
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