How to host the Olympics and actually improve your city’s transit

ONCE UPON A time, hosting the Olympics seemed like a good idea for Rio de Janeiro. The games would provide a catalyst for much-needed infrastructure improvements, complete with funding and must-meet deadlines.

August 7, 2016

By: WIRED

ONCE UPON A time, hosting the Olympics seemed like a good idea for Rio de Janeiro. The games would provide a catalyst for much-needed infrastructure improvements, complete with funding and must-meet deadlines.

But when the Olympic torch lit the cauldron in Maracana Stadium on Friday night, many Brazilians surely wondered, “How did we get such a raw deal?”

As the 2016 Summer Games begin, the city’s transportation system is hardly ideal: Transit lines that benefit the middle and upper classes, rather than the people who need them most. A subway system delayed by cost overruns and untested as hundreds of thousands of people descend on the city. Walls that shield visitors from favelas—too bad if you actually live in one of them. Olympics infrastructure projects displaced 77,000 Rio residents, Smith College economist Andrew Zimablist estimates.

Other cities have followed the bait into this trap. Montreal needed 30 years to pay down its $1.48 billion debt from the 1976 Games. Athens’ empty venues, the legacy of its $11 billion 2004 foray, have earned it a place in the Ruin Porn Hall of Fame. Meanwhile, Beijing is pouring more than $9 billion into high-speed rail projects linking the city to skiing areas for the 2022 Winter Games—even though those places face the prospect of serious drought.

Calls for a new approach—a permanent host city, or holding the Games in multiple cities simultaneously, for example—aren’t catching on. And so things go on, as they always have. PyeongChang, South Korea, hosts the 2018 Olympiad, and Tokyo the one after that.

Granted, some cities have done this well, tremulously but successfully parlaying their duties into longterm positives. Here’s a guide for future hosts aiming not to screw the transportation pooch. . .

[Below, URP Associate Professor Eva Kassens-Noor discusses some of the challenges of transportation planning in Rio prior to the start of the Olympics.]

Do Not Skimp on the Good Stuff

Deadlines can be helpful for projects that tend to drag on (see: New York’s Second Avenue Subway), but they bring risks. “You can’t go cheap and easy and fast,” says Eva Kassens-Noor, an urban planner with Michigan State University. For example, Rio probably should have expanded even further on its hardy, high-capacity rail system. Because it was low on money and short on time, it pivoted to bus rapid transit systems in some areas. Not bad, but not ideal. This is why that drop-dead torch ceremony date is a killer, Kassens-Noor says: It forces to cities to make on-deadline decisions they might later regret.

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