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2024 Olympics would give Los Angeles a chance to fix transportation issues

A Metro Blue/Expo line train traveling eastbound. An extension of the Expo Line to Santa Monica is slated for opening in early 2016. (Creative Commons photo by user Prayitno via Flickr)
A Metro Blue/Expo line train traveling eastbound. An extension of the Expo Line to Santa Monica is slated for opening in early 2016. (Creative Commons photo by user Prayitno via Flickr)

The Summer Olympics might be returning to Los Angeles in 2024. But will the international sporting event do anything for Angelenos?

Not everyone takes kindly to the idea of a third Olympics in Los Angeles. This is understandable. The Games are expensive – modern host countries have always footed larger bills than estimated. And cost issues aside, if you commute around Los Angeles, you’re probably terrified about what this will do to traffic. I share these concerns – after all, during the summer, I commuted more than an hour from the nearby San Gabriel Valley to UCLA for classes, even though it’s only 30 minutes away without traffic.

But those critical of L.A. 2024 for either reason should realize that the Olympics aren’t just about bowing down to the International Olympic Committee’s demands. Such large-scale, civically sponsored events involve changes or implementations of public policy and urban planning. What this means is that the Olympics might not be so bad for your commute after all, and spending for the Games can catalyze the city’s recent efforts to reform its infamously car-centric image.

1. Los Angeles just hosted the Special Olympics World Games.

An estimated 500,000 spectators, 30,000 volunteers, 6,500 athletes and their families and assistants descended on Los Angeles last month for the largest World Games in history and the largest-scale L.A. event since the 1984 Olympics. I commuted to UCLA – one of the event venue locations – for classes during the 10-day period, and traffic was not perceptibly worse. The only addition to traffic was a handful of school buses designated for athlete transportation, but it’s hardly enough to add minutes to a commute. It’s too optimistic to say that the 2024 Olympics won’t impact traffic at all, but to compare, the London saw almost 700,000 visitors during the 2012 Games; in 1984, LA saw around 770,000.

2. Traffic wasn’t bad during the 1984 Games.

The reason for this was quite simple. We’re never in traffic; we are traffic. The city encouraged residents to work from home or use public transportation during the two weeks of the Games, decreasing traffic by around 5 percent. It’s true the effect may not be as great this time around, since the Greater L.A. area currently has around 7 million more residents than it did in 1980, and this number will surely increase by at least another 2 million by 2024. Yet this ignores the fact that …

3. … the city has a rapidly-expanding public transit system …

Car traffic was partially allayed during the 1984 Games through encouragement of buses for shorter distances and Metrolink trains for longer ones. The entire Metro Rail system, which did not exist at the time, is now one of the fastest-expanding transit systems in the country. Next year will see the opening of the Expo Line extension to Santa Monica – the so-called “Subway to the Sea.” By 2024, the system will have expanded to allow a rider to travel from Santa Monica, to Downtown, to Hollywood – all planned Olympic venue “clusters” – using the rail system with no gaps. Yet Los Angeles County Metro wants to take this further. Taking advantage of the potential Olympic bid, it is asking for federal funds to accelerate completion of the Purple Line Extension and a connector to Los Angeles International airport for 2024 completion dates. Completing both of these projects can greatly lessen demand for automobile transport. And that means less traffic.

4. … not to mention an ambitious mobility plan that will make the city less car-obsessed.

Los Angeles’ transport projects aren’t just about easing congestion. They’re about changing the long-standing stereotype that a car is required to get anywhere in the city. The recently passed Mobility Plan 2035, which calls for more pedestrian access and safety, bike lanes and bike-share programs, can be put to the test during the Olympics and allow the world to see the city in a new, less car-centric, light. The plan aims to redesign sidewalks and streets to prioritize pedestrians and cyclists over cars; the transformation of Times Square in New York from car congestion center into a pedestrian plaza is a notable example.

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