The great truth of the Olympics is this: The games always pack up and leave, along with the athletes and TV crews and other visitors who didn’t spend nearly as much money as organizers said they would. As cities emerge from their three-week stint on the world stage, they invariably realize they’ve poured billions into infrastructure they don’t need and transit systems people don’t ride.
Athens and Rio are the great examples of this, but just about every city that’s hosted a modern olympiad has spent far more than it has earned. Beijing is still wondering what to do with a stadium that looks like a bird’s nest and Sochi finds itself saddled with an $8.5 billion light-rail system no one wants to maintain.
Los Angeles, which recently won its bid to host the XXXIV Olympiad, might escape this fate, not only by running a surplus with the 2028 Summer Games but by ending the party with a world-class transportation system. The city has made it clear that it will not burn through billions building stadiums and badminton courts and an indoor cycling track that looks like a potato chip. (The City Council still needs to accept the offer to host, which the International Olympic Committee will make official in September.)
Instead, the City of Angels—home to several A-list universities and more than a few pro sports teams—will use existing infrastructure or projects that are already underway. It has done this before: When LA hosted the 1984 Summer Games, it became the first modern olympiad to run a surplus ($225 million), and the organizers built a transportation network that serves Angelenos even now. (The city also hosted the 1932 Summer Games and reportedly turned a profit of $1 million.) It plans to do so again in 2028, using the games as an opportunity to fulfill a long-standing goal of creating an exceptional mass-transit system.
“What the Olympics will do is act as a spur to help move some of those projects together faster,” says Ashley Hand, a former transportation technology strategist with the Los Angeles Department of Transportation.
Los Angeles broke with other cities vying for the 2028 games by refusing to build a bunch of stuff it won’t need after the closing ceremony. Oh, sure, it may have to cobble together a canoe slalom course or an equestrian venue, but the city generally plans to make use of existing sporting facilities at UCLA, the University of Southern California, and various pro team stadiums. As for moving the 10,000 or so athletes and 500,000 or so visitors, well, LA will simply use a vast mass-transit system it had already planned to build.
“These plans haven’t been altered to accommodate the Olympics or accommodate the IOC,” says Andrew Zimbalist, an economist who studies mega-events at Smith College. “They might make it easier for the Olympics to happen in 2028, but they’re not Olympic investments.”
Those transit plans include a 40-year, $40 billion revamp by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority that will expand mass transit to Westwood in the west, Torrance in the south, and Norwalk and South El Monte in the east, plus an airport connector through the city, converting the northern Orange Line rapid transit bus to light-rail along the way. No, it won’t be finished before the games, but work should be far enough along to keep everyone moving.
The Olympic Organizing Committee estimates that hosting the 2028 games will cost about $5.3 billion, and Zimbalist believes that if all goes according to plan, with funding from the IOC, sponsorships, and ticket sales, LA could close the games with an operating surplus of $400 million to $500 million.1
Hosting the Olympics could hasten LA’s transformation from a congested, car-crazy city to a mass-transit wonderland by creating a deadline for getting everything built. The first phase of the project is slated to wrap up by the middle of the next decade, with other phases coming online through 2063. Angelenos have voted three times to raise the county sales tax to bankroll the project, so funding shouldn’t be a problem. Political whims, ballooning budgets, and general contracting tomfoolery could always hinder progress, but LA County officials certainly have an incentive to accelerate their progress ahead of the games.
Another good thing about hosting the Olympics: It forces planning and transit officials to look at transit holistically. With Olympic events spread throughout the region like so much smog, planners must connect areas as far flung as Long Beach (water polo, cycling, volleyball) and the San Fernando Valley (equestrian competitions, shooting, canoeing) with downtown LA (opening and closing ceremonies, track, swimming, basketball). Visitors, journalists, and athletes will hopscotch around the city, just like locals. What’s good for the javelin thrower just might be good for the downtown commuter.
Shiny and New
Better yet, the games could trigger real honest-to-Zeus transportation innovation, just like last time. In 1984, the city rolled out its first traffic management system around the Los Angeles Coliseum to minimize anticipated gridlock. (Turns out traffic actually dropped 3 percent, as companies encouraged employees to shift their schedules, work from home, and carpool.) In the years since, LA has adopted the system throughout the city. In 2013, the region synced every traffic light, giving transit authorities the ability to control the entire network and mitigate congestion.
The ’84 celebration also forced the City and County of LA to work with the state to launch a fairly nutty, insta-Olympic bus network. For 16 days, the city ran the nation’s fourth-largest transit system, a ragtag armada of shuttles that carried some 325,000 spectators and 25,000 athletes and coaches. Though parts of that system vanished once the torch left town, other Olympics-style shifts influenced the way local agencies thought about truck deliveries, bus service on arterial roads, transit hubs, and carpool programs. (“Free parking is a disincentive to ride-share,” notes a recommendation document from the time—sound familiar?) It also established firm channels of communication between local transportation authorities that live to this day.
“There’s nothing like real-life examples to show you that some of these things we think are politically unfeasible are in fact very effective,” says Genevieve Giuliano, who studies transportation policy at USC and wrote the 1987 evaluation of the city’s Olympics performance.
In 2028, transportation experimentation could take the form of microtransit, ride-sharing, or electric bicycle networks. Who knows, really. Anything’s possible. LA has 11 years to figure it out, which is long enough to succeed—and long enough to screw it all up. “To some degree, having a deadline of an LA 2028 Olympic Games could force the city’s hand in getting the projects completed on time,” says Steve Ducey, an organizer with the local group NOlympics LA, which opposes hosting the games. “But that’s more time for things to go wrong, more time for things to go over budget, more time to have more kinks thrown into the system that disrupt the potential planning. There’s never been an 11-year lead time for an Olympic Games, so we don’t know what the future’s going to hold.”
City and county officials talk about building infrastructure to serve everyone, but skeptics say that’s just talk. “We will see the advancement of Olympics priorities, not necessarily those of the transit-dependent population that make up the bulk of transit riders,” says Damien Goodmon, who heads up the nonprofit Crenshaw Subway Coalition. “This is an excuse to ram projects through.”
That’s not an unfair assessment. After all, a lot can go wrong between now and 2028. But LA has gone 2 and 0 hosting previous Olympic Games. It’s not unreasonable to think it can score again.
1UPDATE 3:30 PM ET 08/04/17: This story has been updated to clarify economist Andrew Zimbalist’s predictions of Los Angeles’s Olympic surplus.