Stand at any given busy intersection in Reykjavík, and one of the first things that you’ll notice is the car traffic. Reykjavík is, for better or worse, a car town. In fact, over 50% of available city land is devoted to the car in the form of roads and parking lots. But the city faces a geographical challenge: a peninsula with mountains to the east, there is only so much land that can be used. More prudent city planners, recognising the potential for problems arising from a focus on car traffic, might turn their attention towards mass transit. Reykjavík isn’t.
“OUR ICELANDIC REALITY”
Part of understanding why Reykjavík is a car town involves prevailing attitudes, often political in nature, about cars versus buses. Former Mayor Vilhjálmur þ. Vilhjálmsson, a conservative, summarised the right’s philosophy on the matter when he spoke to the Grapevine in 2005: “Icelanders have decided themselves to use personal vehicles, and this is something that we have to accept. The weather here is always changing from rain, to cold, to wind and snow, all very quickly. People just don’t want to walk 500 to 700 metres to a bus stop and wait 10 or 15 minutes in bad weather for a bus to come. This is our Icelandic reality. We don’t see people driving fewer cars.”
City council has changed hands between the right and the left several times since then, and yet even under leftist city councils—often the most vocal advocates of developing mass transit—not only has bus service not improved; it has been cut back. Stops are fewer, hours are shorter, but fares have increased. In the past ten years, in fact, the standard adult fare has increased by about 130%.
How does one account for this? The Grapevine spoke to city councilperson Einar Örn Benediktsson, who is also the city’s liaison to Strætó hf., the company that runs the buses for the capital and suburban area.
“AN INTERESTING DILEMMA”
“This is an interesting dilemma,” he said. “The passenger pays approximately 20% of the fare. The municipalities, which own Strætó, subsidise the remainder. When speaking to Bíllaus Lífstíll [a group that advocates Icelanders driving less, if at all], they suggested a much higher fare for better service to really be able to offer an alternative to the car. The question is, when limited financial resources are available, how much are you willing to pay for a better system?”
This has certainly been the bone of contention for many of the city’s bus users—they recognise that the money has to come from somewhere, and the choices, as always, involve a mix of drawing revenue directly from the public in the form of fares, or indirectly, through taxes.
But bus service has other, residual effects on the city’s residents. A city neighbourhood organisation known as Íbúasamtök þriðja hverfis has, since at least 2007, fought with the city over what they see as an inordinate amount of car traffic—too few stop signs, stoplights and speed bumps have created what are known as “traffic islands”— portions of residential neighbourhoods separated from each other by busy roads. Residents in the Hlíðar neighbourhood, who are represented by the organisation, have said that these traffic islands have made life loud and polluted, and have prevented their children from being able to cross the street to play with their friends. These problems are due to an excess of car traffic—increased bus service typically means reduced car traffic, which could help alleviate these problems for Hlíðar residents, who still deal with these issues years later.
CHANGES CAN’T COME SOON ENOUGH
Of course a conservative, pro-car agenda cannot bear all the blame for the lack of a vibrant mass transit system in Reykjavík; the design of the city itself, much of the downtown area’s street patterns from hundreds of years ago, still remain. And this is something the city recognises as well.
“The spread of the city has not helped public transport,” Einar Örn says. “Hopefully this might change now in the next few months, as a new directive for public transport will be announced. The biggest change in it is that the public transport system of the Reykjavík area will be regarded as part of the whole country’s transport system. This will [emerge] in the form of funds from the state. This will have [parts of the routes] funded, which will free capital to use to better the existing system, make it more tightly-knit into the suburbs—something it does in a limited capacity today.”
Great state funding, and further integration into the suburban area, could effectively reduce the amount of traffic coming into and out of the city. The city also recently announced it would be closing Austurstræti (between Lækjargata and Pósthússtræti, at least) to car traffic, with plans in the wings to make more streets pedestrian-only. Whether or not these changes will pay off for the city—and whether they will be enough to satisfy Reykjavík’s commuters—remains to be seen, but for those who rely on Reykjavík’s bus system, the changes can’t come soon enough.