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Originally published Tuesday, July 24, 2012 at 11:04 PM

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Olympic VIP lanes baffle, anger London drivers

Sabir Karim, a lifelong Londoner, was alarmed to find this week that a familiar city road had suddenly turned into an impossible challenge.

Associated Press

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LONDON —

Sabir Karim, a lifelong Londoner, was alarmed to find this week that a familiar city road had suddenly turned into an impossible challenge.

Officials had redrawn its lanes, leaving him only two options: The bus lane on the left, or the new Olympic "Games Lane," restricted for the sole use of officials and athletes, on the right. The restaurant owner didn't know what to do, but he knew that fines awaited him if he drove in either lane.

"I was literally trapped," he said. "I panicked. It was a scary and horrendous experience."

Bafflement and long waits reigned on London's roads this week as drivers struggled to comprehend the new lane changes, diversions, banned turns and parking restrictions for the Olympics, which officially open on Friday.

As host city, London is as cosmopolitan as they come, but transport is its weak spot: Traffic often clogs up its narrow, historic roads, bus schedules can change at a moment's notice, and the subway (the famous Underground) suffers from daily delays and century-old infrastructure.

The road changes, which came into full force Wednesday morning, are causing additional pain. There were traffic backups in some parts of central London early Wednesday as commuters coped with the new restrictions, and there were signs that many motorists had switched to public transport to avoid the hassle.

"Drivers do have somewhere to go, but it's been a bit confusing," said Paul Watters, head of road policy at the British Automobile Association. "We know it's going to be tricky and difficult, and it's bound to be full of teething problems. We're almost there now so hopefully it will be better."

Even if it all goes smoothly - a big if - the 30 miles (48 kilometers) of Olympics-only road lanes are likely to remain deeply unpopular among Britons.

Critics argue that these lanes - open only to Olympic athletes, officials, journalists, emergency services and games marketing partners - are elitist and make life difficult for everyone else. Driving on the lanes, widely dubbed "Zil lanes" after the Russian limos granted exclusive use of special lanes on Soviet-era highways, can cost you a fine of up to 130 pounds ($202).

Britain relies on traffic cameras to spot infractions, so many people won't know they've been ticketed till the bad news arrives in the mail.

The International Olympic Committee had specifically demanded the lanes be created after learning lessons from previous games - one of the worst being Atlanta in 1996, now remembered as the one where bus drivers got lost and some athletes arrived moments before their events.

In London, some of the loudest opposition to the Olympic VIP lanes has come from the city's cabbies, who have staged two demonstrations in the past two weeks that brought central London traffic to a standstill. Like the rest of the public, they're banned from the Olympic lanes, which they say jeopardizes their business by creating much longer - and costlier - cab rides for customers.

"We're not going to be able to drop passengers where they want to go," said Lee Osborne of the United Cabbies Group, which protested with about 50 cabs at Tower Bridge on Tuesday. "Traffic in London is pretty bad as it is, and now passengers are going to suffer with the meter just ticking away."

Even on a normal day, driving in London is rarely a smooth experience. For a city of its size, it has surprisingly few highways or wide thoroughfares, which means that most roads have multiple traffic lights and pedestrian crossings. Olympics organizers have repeatedly urged people to avoid driving their cars, to walk and bike ride around, and for spectators to go to events using public transport.

That's easier said than done. London's Tube network is the most popular way to get across town, but it groans with age - its first line, the Metropolitan line, opened in 1863. Today, that line still runs alongside more than a dozen others in a half-modernized system that handles roughly 12 million trips a day.

Officials are expecting up to 15 million subway trips a day during the Olympics.

The British government has injected 6.5 billion pounds ($10 billion) to upgrade the network ahead of the Olympics, but it's still riddled with daily problems. On Tuesday, extensive delays hit the key Javelin high-speed train from central London to the Olympic Park, and on Monday, multiple key lines leading to the park broke down during the morning rush hour.

"It can't even cope in normal times, all it takes is one problem and the whole system gets paralyzed," said Tony Shelton, an accountant who was riding the Northern line. His journey was only slightly delayed but he said: "I'll probably avoid coming into town."

Not everyone is so downbeat. Many others are proudly standing by their Tube and their city.

"It was absolutely fine today. I'm sure it will be all right," said Amelia Alvares, a marketing manager. "It's not perfect, but it will work."

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Sylvia Hui can be reached at http://twitter.com/sylviahui

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