From Iceland — Cheap Way to Work or a Big Damn Hassle?

Cheap Way to Work or a Big Damn Hassle?

Published August 5, 2005

Cheap Way to Work or a Big Damn Hassle?

The sun is already high in the sky as I board the number S2 bus at Hlemmur, just after 8am. The S2 is one of the new “Express” bus routes (making it all the more ironic that the S1, or S-Einn in Icelandic, means “late”). It begins at the Hlemmur bus terminal, in the east of downtown, and makes its way along major roads to Hótel Nordica and then Skeifan, loops back along Miklabraut to Kringlan Shopping Centre, before beginning a dash out to the suburbs of Kópavogur, ending – or beginning – its journey in the new suburban development of Vatnsendahvarf, which overlooks the beautiful Elliðavatn Lake and Heiðmörk Park.

The S2 is a good example of the new routes that have been created in the Strætó bus system. Strætó was founded in 2001 as a combination of the transport systems of the seven municipalities that make up the greater Reykjavík area. At that time, the new city-wide bus routes were more of an amalgamation of the existing lines, and not very efficient for commuters, according to Strætó officials. The new system is therefore the result of planning that began four years ago.

The official line from Strætó is that the new system has been created after extensive consultations and with the needs of the public transport user in mind. The main objective is to increase usage of public transport. In a city with car ownership of roughly 600 per 1000 inhabitants (the European average is 300-400), and a very large inhabited area, this is a great challenge. “We are competing with the second or third car in each home,” says Pétur Fenger, Assistant Manager at Strætó. “We say take the bus, and use the money for the third car to go abroad once a year.”

It’s the economic argument that Fenger believes will convince Icelanders to leave their SUVs at home. “Icelanders don’t notice air pollution so much,” he says. And although Strætó participates in a European scheme that operates a small number of hydrogen buses, it’s not exactly great for the environment to run huge buses with only two or three occupants. In fact, according to Glúmur Jón Björnsson of the libertarian association Andríki, fuel consumption per passenger mile on the bus is much higher than for the average automobile, since the buses in Reykjavík are running at a very low capacity. So apparently the only way to convince Icelanders to travel by public transport is to tell them they can buy more cool stuff with the money they save from doing so.

Back on the S2, I am expecting a throng of people to get on during the first stretch heading from downtown to Skeifan. After all, it’s rush-hour and this area has a number of businesses. But the total number of passengers for the first leg of route is five, including myself. Overall, the riders appear to be comprised of the perceived audience for public transport in Reykjavík: elderly people, the young, tourists and foreign residents. Strætó has a long way to go to reach its target of 8% market penetration in the next 20 years (it is currently 4%) when a huge segment of the population is missing from its regular users.

Einar Örn Hreinsson, the bus driver, tells me that this is a normal number of passengers for this time of day (the busy time!) He has driven entire routes with just himself and Talstöð radio for company. On this day and time, passengers are mostly going to work. Everyone I speak to (and that was virtually all of the nine passengers who travelled on the route during the time I was there) is a regular Strætó user. About half of them like the new bus system, while half feel it has increased their commuting time. Mohammed, originally from Tunisia, says it was difficult to understand information on the system for those who don’t speak Icelandic. Of the passengers, only Leifur owns his own car and still chooses to take the bus.

For a relatively small city, Strætó operates an extensive and regular bus system that is clean, friendly, and cheap (for the user, but not for the taxpayer). Einar says that taking the bus can be more relaxing than driving, and that it is generally safer in traffic to be on a bus. The tourists I spoke with were also impressed with the helpfulness of the drivers and the ease of transport.

It’s an uphill battle to build a strong customer base, though. The old Catch-22 arises: people don’t use the system because buses don’t run often or quickly enough to where they want to go, and this is because not enough people use it. In the new Kópavogur neighbourhood where the S2 travels, the houses haven’t even been built yet, but the buses are already there in the hope that, once the very large detached homes have been completed, their occupants will want to economize by taking the 30-minute bus ride into town instead of driving their own gas-guzzling jeeps.

As I climb off the S2 back at Hlemmur, I can’t help but feel a bit sad that Strætó’s noble and well-intentioned targets are perhaps slightly too quixotic for Reykjavíkers still basking in the glory of having the highest disposable incomes in Icelandic history. Will all this change in two generations when the effects of pollution are more noticeable? Will it happen when gasoline prices increase to such an extent that people can’t afford that third car? Or when huge new infrastructure projects designed to accommodate more and more vehicles destroy valuable green space and natural habitats? Actually, maybe it’s me who is the idealist.


You’ll likely have the chance to test out the golden chariots once or twice on your visit.
Here’s the Grapevine’s Top 5 Places You Can Go By Public Transport:

Mount Esja: Take the 15 as far as you can, then hop on the 27 for a trip to the bottom of the big mountain you can see across the fjord from town. It’s about a three-hour hike up and down the mountain.

Sundahöfn Harbour: The new Route 12 or 16 will take you to Sundahöfn Harbour, from where you can take a short ferry ride to Viðey Island for camping, cycling or visiting the historic sites.

All the Museums: All the galleries and museums in the greater Reykjavík area are accessible by bus. Get yourself a day pass and go crazy!

Nauthólsvík: Reykjavík’s answer to Bondi Beach is a short walk from the last stop of number 16.

Reynistaðavatn: You can go fishing in Reynistaðavatn if you take Bus 25.

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