London's streets are ready for the Games. Are residents? (Lefteris Pitarakis / Associated…)
LONDON — Like most taxi drivers here, the one negotiating us through the heavy traffic along the Strand had plenty to say. But instead of the usual taxi driver topics of politics or bad drivers, the subject uppermost on his mind was the Olympics and how he was looking forward to missing them.
"Me and the missus are going away," he volunteered. "We've booked a holiday in Majorca for some sun and to get away from London. A lot of my mates are doing the same."
The reason, he said, was that he and his fellow drivers expect the traffic situation to be intolerable during the Olympics, mainly because London Mayor Boris Johnson and the London Organizing Committee have decreed that several of the city's main thoroughfares will be closed to all vehicles except VIP transport. And with the organizers advising those heading for the Olympic venues that it might be quicker to walk or cycle, the financial outlook for taxi drivers was not bright, he said, although that's not quite how he put it.
He is not the only one issuing grim predictions. The satirical magazine Private Eye published a complete map of London, which it says is a "travel black spot" to be avoided during the Olympics. Elsewhere a cartoon predicts a new Olympic world record — four hours for traveling a bit more than 300 feet in London traffic.
There is plenty more fodder for the prophets of doom: Up to 1 million visitors are expected for the Games, putting added strain on border security agents at airports like London's Heathrow, which has already been criticized for its long lines and lack of staff to screen those arriving from other countries.
The Daily Mail newspaper, always eager to take up the cudgels on behalf of the consumer, warns that airport-style security in force at the sports venues means all liquids in containers of 3.4 ounces or more will be confiscated — leaving visitors to buy drinks at inflated prices once inside.
A bottle of water, it harangues, will cost $2.50 and vendors will be charging $10 for a pint of beer, $3 for a cup of tea and $7.20 for "a small serving of London 2012 red wine." And a basic lunch from the official food stalls will cost $60.
Terrorism, of course, is an ever-present threat, and the pessimists are quick to point out that the terror level has been labeled "substantial." Officials counter with statistics: The Games will be protected by some 12,000 police officers during peak times and 23,700 security staff — a number that includes 13,500 troops on standby, which is more than the 9,500 British troops currently in Afghanistan. Surface-to-air missiles will be set up at six sites in and around London. A no-fly zone will also be established over Olympic venues from July 14 to Aug. 15.
"It'll be a total nightmare, mate," says our taxi driver. "Nothing but flipping chaos."
For those of us who were in Los Angeles during the 1984 Olympics, the gloomy prophecies have an all-too-familiar ring.
Back then, we heard the same warnings of highway traffic jams, an impassable Olympic Boulevard and other city streets clogged around the clock, airport logjams, price-gouging and an influx of prostitutes, pimps and pickpockets from around the world, all bent on preying on unwary Olympics-goers.
It turned out that the opposite came to pass, and the L.A. Olympics were judged a great success. Crime was minimal, prices remained stable, residents and businesses adjusted their work hours and motorists stayed away from the freeways, leaving the roads remarkably free of the usual traffic nightmares.
In fact, during the two weeks of those Games, the most sensational accident occurred not on the roads but on the Coliseum running track. That's where South African Zola Budd, running barefoot for Britain, collided with America's sweetheart, Mary Decker, sending the latter tumbling out of the 3,000-meter women's final.
So, while visitors to London for the 2012 Olympics may not be able to find a taxi, the odds are good that they will enjoy a trouble-free, if somewhat pricey, time.
John Hiscock is a Los Angeles-based correspondent for the Daily Telegraph of London.