Imagine bumper-to-bumper traffic on the Mass. Pike or Interstate 95 or Route 24. Then, on the left, buses and fancy black cars speed past in special lanes closed to regular drivers. Or, worse, everyone sits in traffic while the restricted lanes remain frustratingly empty.
This is a transportation scenario that could play out on the region’s busiest highways if Boston’s revised bid for the 2024 Olympic Games proves successful. It’s a potential pitfall of a feature — called “Games lanes’’ — that the International Olympic Committee urges host cities to implement so that athletes, IOC members, media, and sponsors can count on reliable journey times.
The Boston 2024 organization acknowledges it would use Games lanes in some form, but says it would also work to alleviate traffic jams.
Initially, the Boston bid proposal called for a relatively compact setup, with just 34 miles of roads in its Olympic route network between venues. But with events now also proposed for New Bedford, Worcester, Billerica, and the Deerfield River in Western Massachusetts, the Olympic route network would include a far greater number of roads and highways with Games lanes, and inconvenience a greater number of local drivers. It’s a downside to a larger Olympic footprint.
While many commuters in recent Olympic host cities were able to avoid the inconvenience by just staying out of the city or taking public transportation, it’s harder to imagine Greater Boston commuters getting to work while avoiding such arteries as Route 128, I-95, or Route 24.
Olympic officials play down the disturbance that Games lanes might cause.
“There’s a short-term price for a couple of weeks,” said Richard Pound, a longtime International Olympic Committee member from Canada. “You pay for having the event, and, half the time, it’s during vacation.”
Pound also contended that the special travel lanes at previous Games were “not nearly the imposition” people feared they would be.
Boston 2024 leaders say they intend to plan the Games to avoid trapping rush-hour commuters.
“Our goal would be to ensure that rush hour is least impacted as possible,” said Richard A. Davey, chief executive officer of Boston 2024. “There is some flexibility in how we schedule events, for example. We’ll look at that. . . . We would not be taking lanes for lanes’ sake.”
Part of the planning, Davey said, would include building satellite athletes villages close to their venues outside Boston, to cut down on their need to travel long distances to make it to competitions.
“It’s fair to say we’re not going to be busing people on a daily basis from UMass Boston out to Deerfield or down to New Bedford,” Davey said. “I can’t imagine taking a lane on I-90 for 10 VIPs who want to go out to Deerfield on a Saturday. It’s just not happening. There are going to be other ways for us to make sure — whether it be heads of state or other VIPs from around the world — get to the venues on time without inconveniencing Massachusetts motorists.”
It was transportation breakdowns that inconvenienced athletes at the 1996 Atlantic Olympics that led to the Games lanes. Utilized since the 2000 Sydney Games, these special lanes have ensured reliable ride times and delivered 20,000-plus media members, big-name athletes, and bigwigs to events.
But opponents of Boston hosting the 2024 Summer Games say the very idea of IOC officials being chauffeured along special lanes while commuters struggle to get to work epitomizes their position that this bid would work against ordinary residents.
“We think it’s pretty outrageous that the princess of Liechtenstein and the duke of Luxembourg and the prince of Monaco and all these other unelected folks in the IOC feel that they should be given exclusive access to the highways that people like us drive on every single day,” said Chris Dempsey, cochairman of No Boston Olympics. “And that they have a chance to do that separate from the traffic, separate from any of the inconvenience that this is going to cause other people.”
Greater Boston has hosted one major event that a former transportation official said suggests the region can handle special lanes: the Democratic National Convention in 2004.
For a week, about 40 miles of lanes on some of the area’s most heavily used highways, including I-93, I-95, and I-90, were taken away from general traffic to accommodate emergency vehicles and some bus traffic, said Glen Berkowitz, who worked for the state Transportation Department to manage traffic during the Big Dig.
“I’m cautiously optimistic that the Boston region can pull this off,” he said.
The 2012 London Games, with an Olympic route network that covered 109 miles, including 30 miles of Games lanes, might provide an optimistic precedent.
The traffic jams, taxi-driver protests, and confusion that occurred at the outset dissipated as the Olympics proceeded and everyone adjusted. Officials and athletes soon learned that they could easily reach venues via public transportation, and underused travel lanes were reopened for regular drivers.
Boston 2024 also plans to arrange for Games lanes that can be turned on and off — although at the moment, it’s hard to imagine dignitaries taking public transportation from their Back Bay hotels to competitions in Billerica.
It may not come as much of a consolation to Boston 2024 opponents who believe the Games are being forced on them, but in authoritarian countries, Olympic-related traffic restrictions face little resistance and often go beyond Games lanes.
Prior to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, Russia’s prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, signed temporary amendments that limited access to a large territory surrounding all of the Sochi venues to accredited drivers and service vehicles.
Berkowitz predicted that traffic problems in Greater Boston will be handled more delicately. Lanes can be taken away without any major traffic interruptions, provided motorists are given as much advance notice as possible, he said. And organizers would have until 2024 to figure it out if Boston wins its bid for the Games.
“It will be challenging and complex,” he said. “The great thing we have is the amount of time to plan.”