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Go with the flow: London 2012

Atkins | 15 Jun 2011 | Comments

Up to 500,000 international visitors and another half a million or so from the rest of the UK are expected to arrive in London for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Plans are in motion to keep things moving smoothly, but it’s not only a question of ensuring enough seating and accommodation; it’s about anticipating every move.

London’s infrastructure will face a supreme test in 2012 – one that will affect how the Games are viewed for years to come. There will be a 50,000-strong “Games Family” (athletes, support staff, families, officials, sponsors and so on) in attendance, as well as hordes of spectators, many of whom will be in London for the first time and will want to experience the city and its history while enjoying the spectacle of the Games. The challenge is predicting who will go where and deciding where to focus efforts in order to minimise disruption and improve the flow. Getting there and away

Atkins has been involved in some of the modelling and capacity studies that will shape the way people move in 2012. Planners have to calculate how many visitors will attend, how they might get there and where the pressure points might be, and then lay on extra resources or find ways to influence people’s movements in a more favourable direction.

For many visitors, their first port of call is likely to be one of London’s five airports. A modelling study for the Department for Transport (DfT) conducted by Atkins showed that 240,000 extra air passengers will come to the UK during the 31 days of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. The greatest spikes will come before the main opening ceremony (40,000 extra) and in the days after the closing ceremony (65,000 extra).

For Mike Pearson, airport development director at Atkins, his worry is that operational problems at the airports could lead the athletes either to miss the opening events or to be left waiting after the Games are over.

“There is a kind of paranoia after what happened in Salt Lake City in 2002,” he says. “The Games themselves were a success but when they were over, there were miles of queues at the airport and people struggled to fly home. This went on for a day and a half because the airport couldn’t cope. Organisers in the UK are understandably concerned about that.”

The study found that London airports could cope with the heightened demand – assuming the weather co-operates, air traffic control runs smoothly and the airlines and airports put aside normal competitive forces in favour of a co-ordinated strategy. In fact, Pearson says getting air operators to co-operate effectively will be an important challenge.

Ideally, the organisers would like to ensure a consistency of service across the five airports, with no one operator benefiting its passengers to the exclusion of another company’s provision.

“They will need to come together to make sure that the Games go off without a hitch,” says Pearson. “Whether they’re an airline or an airport, they are going to have to make it happen.”

Pearson says his team observed Vancouver airport during the recent Winter Games. “It was the last Games before London, so our team went there to observe the airport, find out how it was coping under the pressure, examine its planning, and find out what it got right and what it got wrong,” he says.

The exercise showed the need for staff training to handle big peaks in demand and for airlines to co-operate in order to ensure that all flights were accorded equal resources.

“Take baggage handling as an example,” says Pearson. “One airline may operate the facility but it leases out the space to a multitude of airlines and ground handlers. All of these partners have to work together to make sure that no flights are under-resourced, so that everything is offloaded in time. This means having plenty of people available to handle things like special javelin bags and outsized baggage.”

At the Park

While Pearson’s team is trying to understand how the flow of visitors to the Games will affect the UK’s airports, another Atkins team is trying to model how, and in what numbers, people will visit some of the Olympic and Paralympic venues themselves. In doing so, it is hoping to make recommendations for how resources should be allocated across the network and how many workers the venues will need for things such as security and refreshment.

“We need to know who’s going to be attending, where they’re coming from, how they’re getting there and what time they’re getting there. We need to know what that means in terms of the pressures at the gate entrances and how people are going to flow in there,” says Andrew Hodgson, who is responsible for the Olympic Park demand modelling effort.

To build up a picture, Hodgson’s team commissioned a survey of 10,000 people, asking them which events they were likely to visit. They then analysed where visitors were likely to start their journeys, and whether people would arrive in London on the day or whether they would have stayed in London the night before (or longer). They also made predictions based on how far people had come.

“If someone’s coming from more than, say, two hours away, the likelihood is they’re not going to make the trip on the day. They’re going to stay over night,” Hodgson explains.

“That starts to build up a picture of people’s movements – say, from the north of England to London, or from overseas into London, or from London to the events in Weymouth, and so on.”

After that, the team analysed the methods of travel that visitors might choose and the implications of that choice, how people might access the events and how ticketing would affect behaviour. “One of the questions we asked was how multi-ticketing would alter things. Will someone who goes to watch an event at ExCeL in the morning then go to Greenwich in the afternoon? How many cross-London movements will there be? And, after the events are finished, will they linger?”

Hodgson says relatively small transport choices can have large ramifications. “Right now, for example, we’re thinking about caravans. We know that caravans are a popular choice for many people in The Netherlands and the Dutch are keen to receive a substantial number of tickets for the Games. As a consequence, we have to assume that many people coming from The Netherlands could choose to travel to the UK in this way.

“Caravans require large areas for parking, as well as clearly delineated standing points, toilet facilities and so on. We have to take these factors into account.”

Hodgson’s team also looked to earlier Olympic and Paralympic Games and other major sporting events in London for indicators to help with modelling the 2012 Games. Their usefulness was marginal, however. Though cities such as Sydney and Barcelona faced similar quandaries, they had different transport systems and event layouts to London. Other big events in the UK’s capital city, meanwhile, have involved single sites, rather than a mass of simultaneous events in different parts of the city.

Still, the forecasts are already proving useful and several external organisations are basing decisions on the data. The Department of Health, for example, is using the models to predict which diseases and viruses could be imported to the UK as a consequence of people travelling to the Games. Businesses are drawing up travel plans for their commuting staff. And the Metropolitan Police is looking at how it will allocate its resources.

Hodgson has yet to explore the impact of unforeseen events, however. Contingency planning is scheduled for a later project phase. Everything from a transport breakdown to the media’s treatment of the Games could affect the scenario building, he says. Other variables include the performance of the UK team and the caprices of the British weather.

Out to sea

For Weymouth in Dorset, where the sailing events will take place, Atkins is working on demand modelling. As with the airport and London event studies, a mathematical model has been built allowing it to predict how many visitors will arrive and how to plan the best mix of transport options to limit bottlenecks and disruption.

The tricky aspect to Weymouth, however, is its relatively limited public transport and road network. While London has multiple entry points, Weymouth is on a peninsula with one mid-sized road in and out. The venue must either be served by extensive bus links from “park and ride” sites within a 15-mile radius, or be restricted to limited numbers of ticket-holders.

Anan Allos, who leads the Weymouth project, says the challenge with the Olympic Games is that it is a one-off. While plenty of traffic studies have been conducted for the local neighbourhood, none has taken account of large numbers of press and athletes arriving from all four corners and the unpredictable nature of the local population when the Games arrive on their doorstep.

Getting ready for 2012 is not only about physical infrastructure. Much of the job involves understanding how people will interact with new facilities and how existing systems will hold up under the strain. Behind the scenes, planners are wrestling with a range of knotty logistics problems as they try to make the visitor experience as stress-free as possible and create a legacy for large-scale events of the future.

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