More than half way through the 2018 Winter Olympics, the world now knows a bit about Pyeongchang, the isolated Korean mountain area of just 44,000 residents. This coming out party had a massive price tag - Pyeongchang spent as much as $8 billion to build the facilities and infrastructure for these Games. That figure is about double the budget, due largely to the $3.7 billion express train ferrying visitors to Pyeongchang from Seoul.
Cost overruns are nothing new to the Olympics; in fact, Pyeongchang pales in comparison to previous games in Sochi and Rio. And transportation spending feels downright sensible when compared to the $100 million stadium that probably will be torn down after just four events. Still, to commit billions in public funds for a high-speed train that will never again experience significant passenger demand could fiscally cripple this small region.
Contrast that with Tokyo’s plan for the 2020 Summer Olympics. The major transportation focus for Tokyo, with its comprehensive (though stressed!) train systems, is to supplement mass transit with fleets of self-driving cars. Japanese automakers have committed to developing these vehicles in time for 2020 and and at least one aims to use the Games as a venue for cementing its new image as a mobility company. With a simple challenge, Japan has spurred a major national industry, earned an infrastructure sponsor for its Games, and advanced global innovations in transportation.
Smaller hosts like Pyeongchang could really benefit by following Tokyo’s model. The lesson that transcends the Olympics is this: sustainable transportation systems require a multi-modal planning approach, integrating both reliable public transit and convenient last-mile personal transport.
Moreover, through public-private partnership, even a little region like Pyeongchang could drive meaningful global innovation and rally an entire nation. What could be more true to the Olympic spirit than that?