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Whose City Is It? Tour Buses And Locals Struggle To Find Harmony

Whose City Is It? Tour Buses And Locals Struggle To Find Harmony

Photos by
Art Bicnick

Published July 16, 2018

Recently we reported that residents of the east Reykjavík neighbourhood of Hlíðar were experiencing difficulties on account of many tour buses taking up space on Skógarhlíð, a residential street. There are a few companies who use the space, all of whom contend they have every legal right to use the area.

Be that as it may, even if it is all perfectly legal, there is still clearly a problem. Residents in the area say these companies park on sidewalks, and photos posted on social media back that up. The residents also complain that these companies offload huge groups of noisy tourists at all hours, when people are trying to sleep, and narrow the passage for cars and cyclists by parking a long row of buses along the side of the street.

So even when the law is being obeyed to the letter, sometimes the law isn’t enough. City authorities have long struggled to maintain a balance between the needs of the tour bus companies and the needs of the locals.

A rocky start

How did we get to this point? Icelandic capitalism is decidedly laissez-faire; we tend to let markets regulate themselves unless (or until) things reach a crisis point. Iceland’s tourism boom began to take off in earnest in 2010, in the wake of the Eyjafjallajökull eruption. Within a few years, tour buses struggling to maneuver through downtown Reykajvík’s narrow streets were a common sight, bringing with them additional noise, pollution, and traffic snarls. In January 2014, a proposal was submitted to the Environmental and Planning Committee of City Council to remedy the situation by creating a “no-go zone” for tour buses that encompassed most of downtown.

So far, so good. However, there were a couple of problems with this regulation from the get-go.

“It illustrates exactly what happens when a problem hasn’t actually been solved but has instead responded to internal pressure in one area by moving to another.”

For one, only buses longer than eight metres were prohibited from downtown. This meant that smaller shuttles — nonetheless far larger than a private passenger vehicle — were still permitted. More importantly, these regulations were based on an honour system; there were no fines of any kind proposed for infractions, and so there were no consequences.

Change is glacial

As could be expected, disturbances between tour buses and locals continued. Incidents such as buses completely blocking city streets were even captured on video, and this caught the attention of city authorities.

“[These buses] are clearly breaking the established agreement that is in effect and has for the most part been respected,” Hjálmar Sveinsson, the chairperson of the Environmental and Planning Committee at the time, told RÚV in 2015. “It is of course unbearable. It’s a sign that tourism, as it’s developing, is pushing residents out of the city.”

Things didn’t get better

By 2016, locals and tour bus operators were not infrequently having conflicts. Vísir reported at that time that tour bus drivers had gotten in numerous arguments with Reykjavík residents downtown over blocked traffic, crowded sidewalks and noise during the boarding and offloading of tourists. Residents and drivers alike expressed concerns that the situation was becoming unbearable.

Hjálmar told reporters that over the next days and weeks, the city would speak with the major players in the situation to try and work out a solution. A special work group was assembled to try and tackle this problem.

Presumably, things improved for the downtown area a bit. The complaints on social media decreased, and shuttle buses traveling through downtown had more or less found a system that worked. However, in many ways the problems simply moved elsewhere.

Squeezing a balloon

One of the defining characteristics of planning challenges is something called “squeezing a balloon”. It illustrates exactly what happens when a problem hasn’t actually been solved but has instead responded to internal pressure in one area by moving to another. That is very much the case where Skogarhlíð is concerned.

“As with so many other things in Iceland, we may end up playing this by ear. Past experience teaches us, however, that this is not always the best strategy.”

Björn Axelsson, a planning representative for the City of Reykjavík, told RÚV last month that while there is no law that put limits on tour bus services in Skogarhlíð, “there appears to be driving going on in the area that is not in harmony with planning interests when considering placement, size and volume, and so there may be non-permitted operations going on here.”

Even health authorities have gotten involved. Fréttablaðið reported around the same time that the Health Supervisory Authority of Reykjavík has concluded that some of these companies have no operating license for using the parking lot as a terminal — a contention the bus services themselves categorically deny.

As before, the matter is currently being reviewed by the city, again.

So what’s the solution here?

It must be emphasised that between locals and tour companies, there aren’t really any deliberately bad actors. No one believes that bus drivers intentionally set out to block intersections or sidewalks. But the residents of Reykjavík have the right to be able to live in peace. How can harmony be achieved?

While the good people of Reykjavík’s planning and environmental departments are on summer vacation, this should be something for them to consider. Should the city buy a lot to demarcate specifically as a tour bus terminal? Where should the lot be located? Is it all a matter of enforcing existing laws, or do new laws need to be created?

As with so many other things in Iceland, we may end up playing this by ear. Past experience teaches us, however, that this is not always the best strategy.


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