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Chicago Olympics May Depend on Better Transit – But Where’s the Commitment?

Chicago 2016» International Olympic Committee with pick a 2016 host site in October; Chicago faces tough competition from Tokyo, Madrid, and Rio.

Last week, U.S. Department of Transportation head Ray LaHood said that the Obama Administration would do as much as possible to ensure the well-being of Chicago’s 2016 Olympic bid. This pledge of support could include grants designed specifically to improve the city’s transport network, which has suffered from significant underinvestment in recent decades. President Obama said during the campaign that he would relish a Summer Olympics event in his hometown as a capstone to his potential second term in office, and indeed, a successful games there would solidify his political legacy.

But an Olympics Bid is a complicated thing, and Mr. LaHood’s pledge of support may be worth less than it seems, because it carries with it no definitive commitment to undertake any specific transport improvement project. More significantly, Chicago’s competitors in South America, Europe, and Asia are not holding back, and they will be offering extensive arguments for their being selected when the International Olympic Committee meets to pick a games host on October 2 in Copenhagen.

The sheer mass of individuals visiting the Olympics over a two-week period (and then its follow-up, the Paraolympics) can overwhelm public transport systems. That was evidenced in 1996 when Atlanta attempted to move its guests on the two-line MARTA rail system and on thousands of school buses; the city had been forced to expand its network from the tenth largest in the country to something closer to the third, and the temporary growth was hard to handle. To put it nicely, the crowds weren’t pleased by the network’s performance, complaining about frequent delays and breakdowns.

London, which will be hosting the Summer Olympics in 2012, will feature a series of new transit lines designed to reinforce the city’s already impressive public transportation network. The Docklands Light Railway, which runs in the city’s east side and is being expanded for the event, is expected to carry 500,000 spectators a day during the first week of the games; a new Javelin service running on the Eurostar Line will make the link directly between the central city and the Olympic Park in just 7 minutes. The transit operations serving the park will have a peak load capacity of 240,000 riders an hour. Note that Chicago’s entire rapid transit system carries just 620,000 passengers a day.

One wonders whether the American bid contender will be able to justify its network’s ability to handle the traffic generated by the Olympics, especially when the city’s three planned transit improvements — all far from games facilities and the center city — won’t open until 2016 at the earliest, if the timeline and budget stay on course. The primary improvements proposed by Chicago for the event are minor, consisting of doubling service on Metra commuter rail trains and instituting a series of bus rapid transit corridors. Worse, few of the major event facilities are directly adjacent to rail stations, though most are within a kilometer, a barely acceptable walking distance. And the money to make the BRT scheme truly effective isn’t there — unless Mr. LaHood steps in to provide the city a large grant. This is a possibility since until January the city was angling for a Washington-funded, city-wide bus network.

Rio, Tokyo, Madrid all have Olympics bids that are just as well developed as Chicago’s. Tokyo and Madrid are at a bit of a disadvantage because Beijing hosted the games in 2008 and London will host them in 2012; the IOC prefers geographical equity over the years. South America has never hosted a game, which could give Rio a leg-up, but as the chart below demonstrates, its transit network isn’t up to the standards of its European and Asian competitors. But then again, neither is Chicago’s.

Comparing the Olympic Bids’ Transit Facilities
City Rapid transit miles Rapid transit daily rides Commuter rail miles Commuter rail daily rides
Chicago 106 620 k 495 336 k
Madrid 175 2,500 k 230 880 k
Rio 26 580 k 139 450 k
Tokyo 204 8,700 k * *

* Larger than the other three, but difficult to sum-up because of the number of overlapping services.

If the IOC’s decision were solely a function of the transit systems of the respective cities, it is clear that Madrid and Tokyo would be the top contenders. But even a comparison with Rio puts Chicago’s bid to shame. The Brazilian government has already committed to a $19 billion high-speed train between Rio and Sao Paulo that will be completed by 2014 and reduce the travel time between the cities to 1h20. The city’s existing metro and commuter rail network, though smaller than Chicago’s, in general will provide better access to Games facilities — and a new, robust, funded BRT system will connect the sites in non-rail-accessible areas as well.

Mr. LaHood’s commitment to help Chicago fund transit improvements in preparation for the Olympics could well mean a reinforced BRT system, but it will not bring a major expansion to the city’s rail network — meaning that the Games will not result in a significant change in the manner in which people get around in the city. I should point out that non-transport-related investment on the city’s south and west sides could provide an effective tool to increase development in what are currently intense pockets of poverty.

The Administration’s willingness to deliver grants to Chicago may help the city win the Games next month; one major objection of the IOC has been that, unlike the other cities, Chicago doesn’t have a national government guarantee that cost overruns will be covered. But the city seems likely to host the 2016 Olympics only if the IOC downplays the importance of good transit connections, if it slants its geographic equity equation towards the Americas, and if it finds itself unwilling to take a risk on an event in a second-world city in a developing country like Rio. Otherwise, each of the other three cities seems more fit to handle the infrastructure-stressing crowds that will come with the event.

Image above: From Chicago 2016 Bid Book