Road tolls and radical urban planning are among this years challenges for the city of Reykjavík.
Reykjavík and the surrounding municipalities are a sprawling post-war region. Iceland was a poor, agrarian society well into the 20th century. The flood of money from the Second World War, the Marshall Plan, and the Cold War US base brought expansive suburban environs and, to navigate them, cars. Aside from a small and walkable pre-war downtown dore, the city grew with the car in mind, bypassing dense urbanism of the industrial revolution.
According to Björn Teitsson, an M.Sc. student of urban studies at the Bauhaus University, half of the city’s built land is paved for cars, and Icelanders are second only to Cyprus in car ownership and use. After the shocking election of Jón Gnarr in 2010, the city developed a modern and comprehensive plan that focuses on increasing density and diversifying transport options. Compared to cities around the world, these plans are modest. But they have sparked loud controversy.
Business groups feared that pedestrianized streets and minimally reduced parking availability would hurt sales. It has been characterized as a war on the car by the hyperbolic. The latest battle in the war erupted as the government presented a new transportation plan at the end of the fall parliamentary term. The plan included funding for a popular new bus rapid transit system for the capital region called Borgarlínan, and the decidedly unpopular introduction of road tolls around the country.
Iceland’s roads have been underfunded since the financial crisis of 2008. The main purpose of the proposed tolls is increase state revenue for maintenance and expansions. As the car fleet transitions to electric vehicles, road tolls may replace fuel and carbon taxes. Björn noted that the government’s plan “doesn’t really tackle the bigger issue, which is the problem of Iceland having too many private cars. And note, electric vehicles are also cars, and they need very expensive road and infrastructure. Furthermore, if an electric car will hit you, a pedestrian, you are just as dead as if it were a carbon fuel driven vehicle.” The state is effectively subsidizing electric vehicles, but the overabundance of used former rental vehicles has saturated the market, making car ownership easier and much cheaper.
Björn believes “Icelandic car owners have been pampered for decades compared to other countries and cities”. The toll provision sparked immediate outrage. Road tolls are rare in Iceland. The most well-known toll, for use of the Hvalfjörður Tunnel, was revoked in the fall once the project was paid off.
It is important to put these proposed new tolls in wider context. Fuel taxes and tolls are highly regressive forms of taxation that put a heavier burden on lower income people. The tax burden has been shifting from the rich to the poor since 2013. The conservative dominated governments of the past five years eliminated a wealth tax, luxury VAT, lowered fishing fees on a favoured industry, and raised taxes on food. After some push-back from the general population, the ruling coalition postponed debate on the road tolls until 2019.
Urban Planning 101
The city was without a strong, coherent plan for the second half of the last century, therefore it should not be too surprising that its current development plan is seen as radical by some. Relatively minor efforts to make the city more pedestrian friendly have been met with resistance. In 2011 the city began closing parts of Laugavegur to cars. The downtown merchants’ association claimed the loss of less than 20 parking spaces would devastate their businesses. According to RÚV, In Fall 2018 the city council unanimously approved a proposal to close the street year-round with much less commotion. Anyone that visits the street will see it has plenty of foot traffic, as does much of the 101 district.
Björn also pointed out that “this proposal only applies to traffic going out of Reykjavík, whereas we should be trying to get people out of their cars within Reykjavík—including the western part of the city, Hlíðar, Miðbær and Vesturbær, where we have a dense, walkable city which does not need all this car traffic. Everything is easily reachable by foot, bike, or public transport in this area”.
Reykjavík has done little to discourage driving. Little parking has been eliminated. Surface lots are disappearing downtown, but underground garages often replace them. Björn believes the city should go further.
“Public transit (Borgarlína), pedestrian and biking infrastructure, and the densification of urban space are useful but more needs to be done. We need less parking, more pedestrian spaces, more streets reserved for only pedestrians. In Iceland people somehow think these measures are radical, but all they need to do is look around. Every city is doing it. All we have to do, for a much more liveable city, is to want the change, and execute that change. Simple as that”.
Björn emphasized the wider and more obscure benefits of less driving. There are the obvious environmental solutions but not so obvious ones too. Using other forms of transport leads to less consumption of useless things and food waste. Between 20 and 50 pedestrians are killed every year, a staggering number given the city’s size. Fewer drivers and more walkable streets would save many lives. Icelanders are the unhealthiest of the Nordics, which can in part be attributed to our car-enabled sedentary lifestyle.
Iceland has a reputation for environmentalism. This is understandable given clean electricity, sprawling majestic landscapes, and good PR. But it is unwarranted in many ways. Icelanders drive so much that there are regularly health warnings for those with breathing issues to stay indoors. Björn emphasises that individual need to take the initiative. “People stuck in traffic are very keen on complaining that the traffic needs to be fixed. Well, they are the traffic. It won’t be fixed unless you stop being the problem,” says Björn. “It’s exactly like someone in a crowded room is smoking, and then he or she would complain about the smoke. Well… the solution is pretty obvious.”
The war rages on.