Sabir Karim, a lifelong Londoner, was alarmed to find this week that a familiar city road had suddenly turned into an impossible challenge.
Officials had redrawn its lanes, leaving him only two options — the bus lane on the left, or the new Olympic “Games lane,” restricted for the sole use of officials and athletes, on the right.
The restaurant owner did not know what to do, but he knew that fines awaited him if he drove in either lane.
“I was literally trapped,” he said. “I panicked. It was a scary and horrendous experience.”
Bafflement and long waits reigned on London’s roads this week as drivers struggled to comprehend the new lane changes, diversions, banned turns and parking restrictions for the Olympics, which officially tomorrow.
As host city, London is as cosmopolitan as they come, but transport is its weak spot: Traffic often clogs up its narrow, historic roads, bus schedules can change at a moment’s notice and the subway [the famous underground] suffers from daily delays and century-old infrastructure.
The road changes, which were coming into full force yesterday morning, are causing additional pain.
“Drivers do have somewhere to go, but it’s been a bit confusing,” said Paul Watters, head of road policy at the Automobile Association. “We know it’s going to be tricky and difficult, and it’s bound to be full of teething problems. We’re almost there now, so hopefully it will be better.”
Even if it all goes smoothly — a big if — the 48km of Olympics-only road lanes are likely to remain deeply unpopular among Britons.
Critics argue that these lanes — open only to Olympic athletes, officials, journalists, emergency services and Games marketing partners — are elitist and make life difficult for everyone else. Driving on the lanes, widely dubbed “Zil lanes” after the Russian limos granted exclusive use of special lanes on Soviet-era highways, can cost you a fine of up to ￡130 (US$202).
Britain relies on traffic cameras to spot infractions, so many people will not know they have been ticketed until the bad news arrives in the mail.
The International Olympic Committee had specifically demanded the lanes be created after learning lessons from previous Games — one of the worst being Atlanta, Georgia, in 1996, now remembered as the one where bus drivers got lost and some athletes arrived moments before their events.
In London, some of the loudest opposition to the Olympic lanes has come from the city’s cabbies, who have staged two demonstrations in the past two weeks that brought central London traffic to a standstill. Like the rest of the public, they are banned from the Olympic lanes, which they say jeopardizes their business by creating much longer — and costlier — taxi rides for customers.
“We’re not going to be able to drop passengers where they want to go,” said Lee Osborne of the United Cabbies Group, which protested with about 50 cabs at Tower Bridge on Tuesday. “Traffic in London is pretty bad as it is and now passengers are going to suffer with the meter just ticking away.”
Even on a normal day, driving in London is rarely a smooth experience. For a city of its size, it has surprisingly few highways or wide thoroughfares, which means that most roads have multiple traffic lights and pedestrian crossings. Olympics organizers have repeatedly urged people to avoid driving their cars, to walk and cycle around, and for spectators to go to events using public transport.