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What is the health impact of the 2012 London Olympic transport plans?

While the UK government worries about visitors streaming through customs at Heathrow, locals around the new Olympic site are worried about what the sudden wave of visitors will mean to them. What can they expect as ticket-holders jam roads, crowd public transport, and over-run East London? Will the commitment to public health hold true for transportation? And what will happen after the closing ceremony?

We spoke with Mark McCarthy, Emeritus Professor of Public Health at the UCL Department of Epidemiology and Public Health and co-author of “Health impact assessment of the 2012 London Olympic transport plans” in the European Journal of Public Health, about the what East Londoners can expect when the Olympic Games kick off next week.

London committed to achieving a high level of sustainability in its Olympic bid, including ‘encouraging healthy living’. How do transport plans reflect this goal?

Physical activity, including walking and cycling, makes an important contribution to our health. Exercise lengthens life by reducing chronic diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes, and helps (along with healthy eating) to reduce obesity. Most people visiting the Olympics Games will arrive and leave by public transport for visitors, and will walk to and from their transport stops. However, the Olympic officials will be transported in cars.

How is public transport in the area being modified to cope with the large number of spectators?

Trains (including Underground) will be the main transport for visitors and there have been major improvement of stations, lines, and interchanges. During the Games themselves, there are special arrangements to manage crowding at peak times.

Your study also showed that road traffic would increase in East London after the Games. Will the public transport improvements offset this potential negative environmental health impact?

We assessed the plans for Olympics, including the predictions for transport in East London after the Games. Cars are a health hazard. They cause premature deaths from air pollution, are a danger for accidents, and reduce exercise in travelling. Over the next decade, contrary to the Mayor’s policies, road traffic in East London is predicted to increase, failing the Olympics commitment to ‘sustainability’.

Has space been provided at the Olympics site to promote walking or cycling?

The Games have been promoted as an opportunity to encourage personal exercise and fitness across the nation. There will be parking spaces for cyclists (for up to one visitor in twenty) at the Games site at Stratford and visitors will get to their Olympic stadium by walking from the train station.

Will the proportion of “green spaces” in the area increase?

A new park is being built at Stratford. It will be both a pleasant area for walking during the Games, and a new green space afterwards with connections to pan-London routes for walking and cycling.

How will transport impact on the local community?

During the period of the Games, there will be alterations to both road traffic and public transport around Stratford. For the longer term, the Olympics has provided transport improvements, with new stations, more frequent services, and better links across London. The challenge for the Olympic legacy, however, is to change behaviour: promoting walking and cycling, and reducing car use. East London has poorer levels of health than the rest of London, and these measures would promote for health and well-being for the local community.

What efforts are being made to track the environmental and health impact of the Olympic developments in East London?

Our study made predictions of how the Olympics transport plans would affect the local community’s health. We also voluntarily prepared and submitted a full scientific proposal to track the health impacts during and after the Games. Unfortunately, the national scientific funding body rejected our proposal. And so, as far as we know, the unique opportunity to determine how the community’s health is being affected by transport has been lost.

Mark McCarthy is Emeritus Professor of Public Health at the UCL Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London, London, UK. He is the co-author with Robert J. Ravelli and Mike Sinclair-Williams of “Health impact assessment of the 2012 London Olympic transport plans” in the European Journal of Public Health.

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