As Games Play On, London Quieter Than Expected

Just a few weeks ago, warnings were flying thick and fast that the Olympic Games would reduce London to chaos, jamming the capital's roads and clogging up its aging transport system. Officials urged residents to work from home and plan their travel carefully. The public seems to have taken that advice to heart.

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Now to London, which is a ghost town because of the Olympics, at least that's according to some British tabloids. They exaggerate but it is true that predictions of chaos and congestion across the city have not come true. East London, home of the Olympic Park, is popping with life but not so for some of the more famous places in the heart of London, as NPR's Philip Reeves discovered.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Listen...

(SOUNDBITE OF RUNNING WATER)

REEVES: That's a fountain in London's Leicester Square. Usually around now at the peak of the tourist season, this place is packed and roaring with life. Usually you'd have a hard time hearing that fountain. Plenty of people are milling around but by the standards of this place this is an unusual hush.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLAPPING)

REEVES: Not far away, in Covent Garden, another big tourist hotspot, there is quite a crowd in festive mood.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLAPPING, MUSIC AND SINGING)

REEVES: To an outsider's untrained eye this looks busy, but not to the eye of Sharon Sickles(ph).

SHARON SICKLES: Pretty grim. Pretty grim.

REEVES: There are far, far fewer people here than normal, Sickles remarks. She's sitting at her jewelry store reading a book. She says business is so slow she's getting through a book a day.

SICKLES: The Olympic Games have had a devastating effect on the West End. And they've devastated shops, restaurants, theaters, market stores. And because we were already in a recession, small businesses have really suffered. And we were hoping that these two weeks, last week and this week, to go some way to repairing it.

REEVES: Nas Goktas(ph) has a clothes store nearby.

So what are you reading there? This is the...

NAS GOKTAS: This is The London Evening Standard.

REEVES: OK, so you have time to read the paper, right?

GOKTAS: Yeah, lots of time to read everything.

REEVES: Could it be the Olympics, do you think, that everybody is staying away from London, 'cause they're worried about...

GOKTAS: Could be, because before the Olympic Games there were lots of announcements about London could be very busy; be careful about your holidays.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SUBWAY SIGNAL)

MAYOR BORIS JOHNSON: (Recording) With one million extra visitors daily for the games, transport services are going to be exceptionally busy...

REEVES: This is what Goktas is talking about. It's a recording by London's Mayor Boris Johnson. Before the games, that announcement was repeatedly played at the city's transport hubs. They've now stopped. Back then, officials were advising Londoners to work at home, if possible. There were predictions of chaos at Heathrow Airport, of gridlocked roads.

Sharon Sickles thinks the authorities seriously overdid these warnings.

SICKLES: I think the powers that be, including Boris Johnson, got hysterical about London coping with visitors. We can easily cope with a million visitors.

REEVES: Figuring out how London's economy is being impacted by the games isn't easy. The association for London's leading visitor attractions says numbers are down on last year by up to 40 percent. They say the usual tourists aren't here and Olympic visitors have not come to London to go to museums.

London cabbies, like Trevor Lowe, say trade is way down.

TREVOR LOWE: I started driving a cab in 1976 and this is the quietest I have ever, ever experienced in my life.

REEVES: Shops in some areas are doing very badly. Others around the Olympic Park in east London, for example, are booming. Johnson, the mayor, questions whether there's a problem at all.

JOHNSON: If you look at what's happened around the venues, they're rammed with people. And hotels, for instance, they have twice as much occupancy as any previous Olympic city. And what we've done really is won round one in the great battle to put on a successful Olympics.

REEVES: One thing is clear, London is definitely a lot quieter than usual. And if you're not in business and losing money, that can be rather nice. So, if you're considering a last minute trip, Sharon Sickles, the jewelry seller has this message.

SICKLES: Come here now.

(LAUGHTER)

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, London.

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