From Iceland — What Happened to Public Transportation in Reykjavík?

What Happened to Public Transportation in Reykjavík?

Published June 15, 2007

What Happened to Public Transportation in Reykjavík?

While some changes were justified in terms of improving service, the reality was that most changes were made in order to cut costs, meaning fewer routes, fewer stops and more time between departures for Reykjavík busses this summer.

As of now, users of public transport in Reykjavík are charged 280 ISK – The equivalent of US $4.40, GBP 2.20 or 3.30 Euros – for a bus that runs every half-hour, and more often than not only takes you to the vicinity of your actual location. The changes have caused regular users of the City’s public transportation to voice their considerable concerns for the future of public transport in Reykjavík.

Especially considering that the act came on the heels of the City introducing its new tenpoint action plan for a more environmentally friendly city where improving public transportation played a central role – and for the first time in years, use of public transport in Reykjavík was actually increasing. Surely, this was a contradictory message.

The Official Response
Gísli Marteinn Baldursson, City Council member for the Independence Party and chairman of the City’s Environmental committee, claims that the reduction of service is only temporarily, and that by the fall the users of public transportation can expect busses to run more frequently and the route grid to be tightened.

“This is only the summer time schedule. Public transportation passengers decrease by 45% in the summer time and for years Strætó has run a separate summer time schedule. Many companies try to set their course according to conditions and reduce their services in the summer time. I don’t think it would be a responsible way to spend the taxpayer’s money to run the same schedule with the reduced number of passengers. The buses will return to a normal schedule this fall,” Baldursson explained when the Grapevine sought explanation.

Baldursson claims that several more changes will be made this fall to improve the service of public transport in Reykjavík. “Last winter, we spent a lot of time researching how people use public transportation in this city. We tried to find out at what stops people were entering the buses and where they left, what routes were most used and so on. We found out that some of the routes carry up to 2000 people, while others carry a few dozens. We also found out that some routes that were believed to be used very much are perhaps only being used much between two or three stops. We are trying to design the system to better meet the demands of the people. The most popular routes will drive more frequently while the lesser used routes will go less frequently,” Baldursson added.

Economic Factors
The underlying reason for reducing the service of public transportation was economical. Strætó bs. had been running a large deficit this year, and recently the company announced a loss in the excess of 500 million ISK in the last year. But is it even possible to speak of a public service that is run with a loss? Would we speak of our highways as being run at a loss? Baldursson answers:

“I can fully understand that point. But I think it natural to talk about a loss when you are talking about exceeding the budget. The City happily pays the 1.2 billion that is intended to run the public transport system. Running a public transportation system is as natural as any other public service the city runs, such as operating the streets the buses run on or the school system, but we have to treat the budget responsibly. The service was on its way to exceeding its budget by 900 million ISK last year, but by changing the system last summer we managed to reduce that number to about 500 million. If we see that the budget is not realistic, then that is something that needs to be reconsidered next year.”

Public Transport for the Environment
While the City’s ten-point plan for a more environmentally friendly city, dubbed as ten green steps, was a commendable effort, the reduction of service seems to run counter to the effort. But there is a positive sign on the horizon. Instead of promising to improve the service when the users increase, this time the city intends to improve the service in order to try to increase the users.

“We have decided to offer all students in secondary school and university to use the buses free of charge as of this fall,” Baldursson says. “There was a cross-political agreement to do this. In the meantime, we also intend to improve the busses. The morning newspapers will be available on the bus and we will attempt to establish a wireless Internet connection onboard some buses. Also, all stops will now have names, which will make navigation easier, especially for foreigners, and there will be an information screen aboard the buses that will announce the next stop. The waiting shelters at the bus stops will also have a clock that will show how long it is until the next bus arrives.”

But did the City consider offering other groups to use the bus free of charge: “We considered offering other groups to use the bus free of charge,” Baldursson says. “However, we don’t necessarily won’t the policy to be that everyone can use the bus free of charge and this should not be considered the first step in that direction. Transportation always costs, no matter if it is public or private. Foreign studies have shown that the price is not necessarily the deciding factor when it comes to using public transportation. If the price proves to be a hurdle, we might re-evaluate the price.”

Reducing Cars in the Streets
Baldursson says that the plan is to try to reduce the number of cars in the streets by attracting more people into the buses, especially young people. “We want to try this experiment. We are offering young people who are about to enter the age when many people buy their first car the opportunity to use public transport for free instead of buying a car. We point out that this will save them 800,000 ISK a year, which is the average cost of running a car in Iceland for one year. We try to provide an alternative”

In recent years, car ownership in Reykjavík has grown tremendously. Baldursson points out that in 1995, there were 450 cars for every 1000 inhabitants in Reykjavík, which is roughly the average in European cities. Today there are 610 cars per 1000 inhabitants, which is roughly the average in American cities. “I am not trying to outlaw the private car. We will always use the private car, but the question is, do we need to use it as much as we do? I run a single car household and we manage with two children, it can sometimes be a puzzle, but we make it work,” Baldursson says. “Our city is not built for 610 cars per 1000 inhabitants. We need to bring that number down. One way to do that is to improve public transport.”

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