From Iceland — My Way Or The Highway

My Way Or The Highway

Published May 20, 2013

My Way Or The Highway
Rex Beckett
Photo by
Alísa Kalyanova

I am mere steps into the Gálgahraun lava field before I forget the bustling highway just to the east, connecting the towns of Garðabær and Hafnarfjörður. There is an almost instant sense of profound reverence to this unusual piece of wilderness, the last of its kind in the greater Reykjavík area. The lava field was created by the eruption of the volcano Búrfell over 7,000 years ago and later became the natural muse to one of Iceland’s most iconic painters, Jóhannes S. Kjarval. Aside from some biological refuse like the discarded skeleton of a Christmas tree and a few piles of dog shit, it is perfect, unspoiled and completely peaceful.

Through the southern half of this ancient field, however, the town of Garðabær is planning to build Nýi (“New”) Álftanesvegur, a six-lane freeway comprised of two bisecting roads. It would lie just a few kilometres north of the existing two-lane Álftanesvegur road. The plans were initially proposed and environmentally assessed by the municipality’s division of Vegagerðin (“The Icelandic Road Administration”) in 2002 and subsequently approved by parliament in 2009.

The new road was meant to bolster the town’s expanding community, in particular the potential new residents of a luxury housing development on the southern-most edge of Gálgahraun. “Many of the residents there bought their homes based on the idea that the new road would be built,” Garðabær Mayor Gunnar Einarsson says. “It will be necessary to accommodate them.”


However, the planned construction has been met by opposition from the onset, in particular from a group called Hraunavinir (“Friends of Lava”). They have launched petitions, organised protest marches and held meetings with Garðabær city officials to try to get them to reevaluate the first assessment, which expired in May 2012, and offer an alternate plan to improve the existing road.

“The last assessment was only valid for ten years,” says Gunnsteinn Ólafsson, a Hraunavinir board member. “Vegagerðin says that, because they have done repairs to the entrance of the road and also built a roundabout at Bessastaðir, the construction has already started. But those two projects were not included in the plan for Nýi Álftanesvegur. They are trying to circumvent the law.”

The opposition arose mainly from the fact that the area is in the Nature Conservation Register, a list of protected areas and areas where the circumstances exist to declare nature reserves or create national or country parks. “It’s up to the municipalities to decide how they regard these areas,” Gunnsteinn says. “So the City of Garðabær decided that the area north of the planned road would be a protected area, but not south of it, even though it is exactly the same nature.”

As the number of protesters increased and discussions reached a stalemate, writer and environmental activist Andri Snær Magnason wrote an open letter to Gunnar Einarsson, published in the Fréttablaðið newspaper on April 20. “I just got tired of seeing people writing all these petitions and protesting and not being addressed,” Andri says. “Of course I don’t think I have the right to demand a meeting with a mayor and that he obey my requests, but I felt I had to say something.” His letter called for Gunnar to reconsider the economical, environmental and cultural impact that this planned construction would have.

With opposition at a fever pitch, Minister of the Interior Ögmundur Jónasson issued a statement to the City of Garðabær requesting that it withhold signing a construction contract until a second assessment is completed. “I think it is necessary to listen to the voice of opposition,” Ögmundur says. “This is not the first time I have intervened in this dispute. I have organised a few discussion meetings and the authorities in Garðabær have always been willing to attend them. Now I hope there will be proper consultations with the protestors.”


The Garðabær division of Vegagerðin is currently doing a second assessment of the road plan, which Gunnar says will be done by the end of May. “If the new assessment shows anything new that we have to take into account, we will,” he says. “The implementation will take place on Vegagerðin’s side.” The new assessment will examine factors such as safety, traffic, cost, construction time and environmental impact.

He adds that the city officials are more than happy to comply with Ögmundur’s request for a second review as it doesn’t hurt anyone to take a second look. “We aren’t trying to come forward with this proposal aggressively,” Gunnar says. “We just want to make sure we look at all the possibilities and do this respectfully.”

While the road currently serves a community of 2,500 people and transports twice as many vehicles at most per day, the planned new road will accommodate 50,000 vehicles per day. Despite the disparity in these numbers, Gunnar maintains the new road’s necessity. “The old one is very dangerous and we have to make room for future traffic in the area,” he says. “We are planning to begin building homes in Garðaholt soon, the area south of the current Álftanesvegur, as it’s one of the best areas to build on.”

Gunnsteinn and Andri disagree with Gunnar about the new road’s necessity. “The problem is that people are driving too fast on the old road,” Andri says. “This is an example of archaic road construction that is no longer relevant to urban planning.” This is in reference to the fact that the proposed freeway is based on an idea that has largely been phased out since the 1970s, due to an increase in traffic congestion at peak hours and the severity of accidents resulting from higher speeds. Many major cities, such as New York, Boston and Portland have implemented freeway removal policies and demolished these types of roads altogether.

Andri adds that the privilege of those who can afford prime real estate is an invalid argument to him. “I live next to a road that transports 12,000 vehicles every day,” he says. “I don’t really have much sympathy for these homeowners who just don’t like a bit of noise.”


The mayor is not only concerned with the residents’ ears but also with their lives. “Our main point is the matter of traffic and security,” Gunnar says, noting that the current road includes a blind-head that is particularly dangerous in bad weather, as well as dangerous merging lanes for cars in the residential areas.

Gunnsteinn too is concerned with safety, but he believes this could be addressed by repairing the old road. “We have suggested two possibilities: either they build roundabouts on the old road to make people drive slower,” he says, “or they could also install motion-sensitive streetlights at intersections that would change from green to red when cars come to drive out of the residential areas.”

He says he is glad that Ögmundur believes that the town officials will meet with him, although he notes that his last meeting with the mayor was unproductive. “His first response to me was, ‘Well! The only other possibility is to build a tunnel, which would cost 3 billion ISK and that is so expensive that no one would dream of doing that,’” Gunnsteinn says. “He had already made up his mind before speaking to us. It was ridiculous.”

“They have their feelings and arguments and we have our ours,” Gunnar says, reiterating his stance that the old road is unsuitable for repair and the only other option would be to build an exorbitantly expensive tunnel. “I think the best solution would be to go ahead with our plan because we were very careful to take the environment into account. We don’t think it will be as damaging to the area as the people opposed think it will be.”

The opposition doesn’t think it will just be a bit of damage, though. “It will totally destroy one of the last remaining ancient lava fields within the metropolitan area,” Andri says.

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