From Iceland — Biking, Busing And Walking: Reykjavík For The Carless

Biking, Busing And Walking: Reykjavík For The Carless

Published October 13, 2015

Biking, Busing And Walking: Reykjavík For The Carless
Alexander de Ridder
Photo by
Art Bicnick

I recently moved to Iceland from the Netherlands. I have neither a car nor a license to drive one, which my mother (who is Icelandic) warned me would be tough. “Pfft,” I thought to myself, “how bad can it be?” I didn’t have a car in the Netherlands either, and I got by just fine with a mixture of walking, cycling, public transport (trains and buses mostly) and cycling. (No, but seriously, the Dutch take their cycling very seriously.)

Upon my arrival, I was surprised to find that while walking was a very fine option (do note that this was written in early September—ask me again come November), cycling and public transport are absolutely shit options for getting around.

Cyclists are fucking crazy

Cyclists are crazy where I come from (this includes myself). We don’t give a shit about cars, or busses, or crosswalks—in downtown areas, we rule the streets. Reykjavík cyclists are insane even by Dutch standards, though: these assholes wear helmets and ride their bikes on the sidewalk. A few bike paths exist, like on Hverfisgata, and the city says it wants to create more, but as of now those paths are fractured, few and far between, leaving the city’s cyclists with two options: the street, or the sidewalk. They choose the sidewalk—and they choose wrong.

Hear me out: cycling on the sidewalk is dangerous business. Cars are predictable, for the most part: if a car hits you, the driver is liable. Therefore, drivers are careful not to hit you. Pedestrians are to cyclists, however, what cyclists are to cars. And worse, they’re unpredictable. If you’re passing someone and ring your bell, they can go anywhere. Some people stop, some people feign left and dodge right, and some people curl themselves into a ball and sob uncontrollably. The point is: as a cyclist you are powerless in the face of pedestrian
dodging tactics.

What, then?

Since Iceland has no trains, this leaves us with buses. And buses here are weird.

Firstly, the payment system is unnecessarily complicated—requiring customers to pay using exact change, an app or a monthly subscription pass model (a three-month subscription is only economical if you take more than sixty bus rides during the period). Furthermore, a single ride’s price is the same no matter how far you plan on taking the bus—so if I want to take the bus for a single stop (because it looks like it might rain, and the sun is in my eye, and I hurt my ankle the other day, etc…), I pay just as much as if I wanted to go to the end of the line. This is incredibly counterintuitive.

Simply put, public transport in almost any European country is superior to the Icelandic model. But, this is a claim that merits further investigation. How does the Strætó service compare to foreign public transit providers, in the eyes of its users? Let’s have a look.


Keeping clients happy

The Hague, the city I grew up in, has a bus company called HTM. In 2013, HTM’s customers rated their service a 7.5 out of 10, which—considering the Dutch “zesjescultuur” (“Culture of Cs”? “Culture of Mediocrity”?), is actually pretty damn good. (For the uninformed, there is this idea in the Netherlands, that a rating of six out of ten—which translates to a C, the lowest passing grade—is acceptable, and once you reach that level, there’s no point in getting better.) Meanwhile, another Dutch bus company called Qbuzz, which services the frigid north of the Netherlands, scored a 7.3 on customer satisfaction in 2014. Overall, the Dutch seem pretty happy with their buses.

Danish bus company Movia reports that 95% of polled commuters say they are satisfied with its services, with 20% claiming they are “very satisfied” with the overall bus service. What the Danes were least happy with was the frequency in which the buses run—and let’s face it, that’s a problem basically goddamn everywhere.

And then there’s Strætó. Strætó, based on my informal polls among commuters and passersby, is mostly thought of in negative terms. The service is expensive and complex, and the central bus station Hlemmur is a huge clusterfuck with no overview (funny story: I once had to take bus 16 from Hlemmur. I walked three circles around the building, and never saw a sign of the bus until it had driven past me. To this day, I have no idea where the 16 bus stops).

You’d expect a customer satisfaction poll to reflect the many, many negatives aspects of the service. But, it doesn’t. After much prodding, Strætó agreed to share with me the results of their 2014 customer satisfaction poll, which revealed the opinions of more than 500 passengers, including other interesting data, such as the fact that most of Strætó’s customers are in the 12-18 year-old age range (and thus forced to rely on public transport—take that as you will).

Based on Strætó’s data, a whopping 84.3% of customers were overall happy with the service, with 24.1% noting that they were “very satisfied”. The numbers aren’t exactly equivalent, but I would say that this puts Strætó above the Dutch bus services. The Icelandic beat the Dutch, again. Oh, the horror!

The customer service department at Strætó was actually kind enough to send me the results they garnered from their “Additional comment” question on their 2014 customer satisfaction poll. Common complaints were the lack of frequency (especially during rush hour), the lack of timeliness, and the price, but these are buried in comments like “Play music on the bus,” “Don’t play music on the bus,” “Uncomfortable but cosy,” and my personal favourite “People are always chatting to the bus driver.” Good heavens, no!

Pretty terrible, yet not that bad

Public transport in Iceland is shit, but maybe not as shitty as you’d think. Thankfully, the city seems to be constantly trying to improve its system, like the recently announced plans to add a streetcar system that would intersect with the bus network, providing a faster alternative for commuters.

My point is: we need to speak up, and engage in an active dialogue with those in charge of public transport. Sure, it can be pretty terrible at times, but, overall it’s not that bad. Providing feedback is the best we can do, short of starting a competing bus company or initiating a hostile takeover of Strætó (I’m not saying I’d condone that, but if anyone’s interested, let me know. I’m Dutch, and we’re good at coming to foreign countries and taking stuff over. (see also: colonialism)).

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Enough. Stop. Now.

Enough. Stop. Now.


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