by CHAD NEWTON

Straeto Bus in Reykjavik
Straeto Bus in Reykjavik. Wikimedia user Jóhann Heiðar Árnason.

Overall Grade: C-

I had the great opportunity to visit Iceland for a few days last week. I found a nation blessed with natural wonders, an evocative history and interesting food. The capital city of Reykjavik has a compact core with world-class shopping, cuisine and nightlife. But the city’s all-bus transit system, Straeto, (there are no trains on the entire island) could use some improvement.

Straeto operates as if they visited U.S. Sun Belt cities to learn best practices:

  • Confusing mess of zigzagging, partially redundant lines? Check.
  • 30 minutes or greater headways outside of peak hours? Check.
  • Off-street transit centers? Check.
  • Opaque and contradictory public information? Check
  • General public unaware or uninterested in how to use transit? Check.
  • Faster to walk 30 minutes in town instead of using transit? Check.

On the plus side, the rolling stock is nice. Fold-up bench seating on one side provides lots of open floor area for wheelchairs or strollers, as is typical for Europe.

More after the jump.

The municipality of Reykjavik has a population of 120,000 within a metro area of about 200,000. Two-thirds of all Icelanders have moved to the Reykjavik region during the 20th century, finally enjoying prosperity and comfort after centuries of hardship, volcanic eruptions and mists. Given the Seattle-ish cold and windy weather, the private automobile was a key component of that comfort. Beyond a compact historic core, post-war Reykjavik sprawled out across the lava with midrise flats, some wrapped in metal siding like a recent Ballard condo, low-rise villas, and single-use commercial centers. Despite a higher density than U.S. suburbs and high-quality pedestrian infrastructure, everything is designed for automobility and criss-crossed with highways.

This is the urban fabric that Straeto must serve. And they respond to the geometric problem of a large geographic service area with few riders and minimal funding in the same ways as U.S. transit agencies; so much so that the city’s mayor felt compelled to drop an f-bomb in his constituent communications while discussing the bus system.

Straeto provides coverage-based services, over limited hours. There are 27 routes in the Reykjavik region, similar in scope to Intercity Transit or Ben Franklin Transit which each serve similar populations. One-seat rides to several places, if you are willing to wait (you’ll be waiting until noon on Sundays). Service is structured around nine transit centers, generally off-street, some even with climate controlled buildings from which you could wait in inclement weather (I don’t understand why this is a feature of coverage-based systems, but it is). Printed literature that I found available in Reykjavik was often outdated and conflicted with other information sources, leaving me to guess which one was correct.

On the positive side, every bus I rode was on-time to the minute. Apparently Reykjavik was able to build its way out of congestion, and the Straeto organization has a strict culture for punctuality.

Lesson learned: Lame transit systems aren’t due only to incompetence or ill will or tradition. They are a rational response to a certain set of conditions, shared between the likes of Olympia and Reykjavik. Improving the transit system requires changing the operating constraints. It would be possible for a city the size of Reykjavik, with greater funding, ridership demand and political support, to provide excellent transit, as several French cities have done. For now, however, get out your walking shoes to enjoy Reykjavik.

32 Replies to “Transit Report Card: Reykjavik”

  1. Thanks for this. Continue to be fascinated by this series.

    Off-street transit centers? Check.

    Do you have a link to an explanation of why off street transit centers are a bad idea? Just curious; it’s not intuitive to me that such creatures are generally problematic.

    1. Folks here complain about off-street transit centers because of the time it takes to get off the arterial, circle around the bus loop and get back on the route. It’s worse if the TC is hidden away somewhere off main thorofares (e.g. Northgate TC).

      They can work pretty well as route terminals because there can be an off-street bus layover and operators’ comfort station. In the middle of a route (e.g., Mount Baker TC, Issaquah TC) they just delay the buses.

      1. Yes, delays are one of the big problems with off-street transit centers. Getting off and then back on to a busy street takes time, as does driving a bus at low speeds around the tight corners that typically exist in such facilities.

        The other big problem is that if you’re trying to walk to the bus from the adjoining street, you have to walk farther to get to your bus than if the bus just stopped right on the street. Also if it’s a larger transit center with multiple bays, you generally have to walk farther to transfer between buses than if all the buses just stopped at the same place and then proceeded on their way again.

        In short, an off-street transit center is designed primarily to get stopping buses off the street in order to avoid inconveniencing those who don’t ride the bus. Those who do ride the bus pay the price in the form of longer trips.

      2. To make things concrete…

        – Every route serving the South Kirkland P&R goes through (234, 235, 249, 255). Depending on how the driveways are configured, each route must make either two or four extra turns relative to simply serving adjacent streets. Before construction started the 255 was making two extra turns per run, now it makes four (northbound, three of these are uncontrolled lefts).

        – Although Lynnwood TC has ramps so the 511 and 512 can access it from the freeway, these routes still have to go through stop signs, make uncontrolled left turns, and loop around the transit center to go through. Planners must choose, when designing a local route like the 196, whether to serve all the connections drawn to the transit center, or to serve actual activity centers, because the transit center is not itself an activity center, just a big parking lot with a lot of transit connections.

        – Northgate TC is a terminal for most bus routes that serve it. Because of its somewhat odd location relative to nearby arterials (it would hardly make sense to locate a bus loop and P&R lot on prime land) and the way I-5 chops up its walkshed many of these routes take indirect routes into the transit center to increase their coverage near Northgate. The pre-shakeup 75 was so indirect and slow going through Northgate TC that Metro split it there, apparently figuring few people use it for that. This wasn’t a solution for the problem so much as an abdication. If you need to travel east-west across Northgate at that latitude you must travel the same indirect route, now with a transfer in the middle!

        Often specific routings (when the infrastructure to do what’s ideal is missing) are a product of tension between serving as many places as possible (homes, businesses, public amenities, transit connetcions… anything) and traveling a direct, efficient path. Transit center loops usually manage to fail at both of these things; at best they provide decent access to transit connections, but even then they often make connections less efficient than they’d otherwise be.

      3. Issaquah TC would be better if the existence of the side entrance didn’t cause some weird routing decisions coming off I-90. The logical thing for buses using bays 3-6 to do would be to swing into the transit center off Maple St, but most of them end up pulling further ahead and wait for the bus-only signal to change (which can take a while, with the left onto Maple sometimes turning green first) and then take an indirect looping route through the transit center (that ALWAYS tricks the 554’s stop-announcement system into thinking it’s LEAVING the transit center since it usually leaves onto Maple).

      4. I am so glad there are people around who realize how awful off-street transit centers are, and how the only people who really benefit from them are car drivers who don’t want to get stuck behind a bus at stops where it might load or unload a large volume of passengers.

        The city I grew up in, Houston, made the horrible mistake of building an off-street transit center in the median of a major east-west arterial. The location of the transit center, combined with the mandate that every bus that went near the transit center had to go into the bus bays, made it geometrically impossible for any north-south route to traverse the area in anything close to a straight line.

        Where I lived, this was especially annoying because I lived about one mile south of the transit center, with a major shopping center (at which parking is somewhat of a pain, even though it’s free) located about 2 miles north of that same transit center. Had the transit center never been built, the logical north-south bus route would have taken me directly from home to the shopping center along the same route I would have driven. But because the transit center is there, the bus has to turn left, then right a mile later, then right again, a mile or two after that, turning what would should have been a 10-15 minute bus ride into a 30+ minute bus ride – enough of a delay that I never used that bus once to get to the shopping center when a ride from mom and dad was a viable alternative.

        Except in extraordinary situations, transit centers, in general are a horrible idea. Bus need to stay on the street and go in straight lines.

      5. “if it’s a larger transit center with multiple bays, you generally have to walk farther to transfer between buses than if all the buses just stopped at the same place and then proceeded on their way again.”

        Transit centers provide a single place to make transfers rather than having one route on one street, another on another street, and a third on a third street. It’s easy for people to remember, a landmark they can find, and something that promotes transit. Ideally the buses will be timed to all arrive at the same time and wait 5 minutes, so that you merely have to walk across the platform to the next bus. This was the benefit of Bellevue TC when it was installed, and it has mostly kept it although the 550 and RR B are no longer synchronized with the other routes as much as they used to be (or in RR B’s case, as the 230 and 253 used to be).

      6. Bellevue TC isn’t so bad because it is a logical endpoint of most routes. The 271 is the only route of any significance where thru-passengers are delayed by the presence of the TC. But even there, the transit center still has negative consequences. For example, anyone from east of 405 who wants to go to Seattle has to be delayed by going through the transit center (and the 271’s 5 minute layover there), even if they don’t actually have to transfer.

        Northgate TC is far worse. By building it, metro has effectively given up on serving any trips between east of northgate and west of Northgate in any reasonable way.

  2. Thanks for the report. I love travelling vicariously!

    Off street transit centers are often poorly sited because they are where the government couls afford to buy available land, not where the optimal geometric position in the network would be. The location causes routes to divert from the fastest path between an origin and destination and thus to delay riders continuing past the transfer center. But it’s delay in-vehicle, which has less cost in a travel demand model than transfer time. So if you have more people transfering than traveling through, it may result in less cost to divert the bus than to make many people wait longer or walk longer to their next bus. The longer wait depends on whether you have the resources to provide frequency. The goal of most urban transit planners now is to have a network operating direct, efficient, fast routes at high frequency so that you allow transfers to occur easily and quickly in any direction at any intersection where routes cross. However, if you don’t have the resources for frequency and instead you are providing coverage type service then transfers from crossing routes become very long and prohibitive. The diversion into a transit center begins to make sense because you can bring many routes there at the same time and let all the transfers happen quickly in a pulse. Unfortunately, this compounds the expense of the route diversion. Because the timed pulse happens on a regular schedule (30 mins is typical) for all buses, there is no incentive to take the fastest most direct route to get to the transit center early. Instead it makes more sense to use the full 30 minutes to cover as much area and pick up as many riders as possible. This pencils out because the time in-vehicle is less costly to riders than transfer time, so you minimize the higher cost item. That’s how coverage/pulse/off street transit center systems produce decent ridership in models, but we know in reality that this type of network often struggles to attract choice riders due to long overall journey times, and the psychological frustration of slow and indirect routing. It is better at addresing the anxiety of transfer vulnerability and access distance concerns that some riders have.

    It’s really a difficult question for the suburban and small city systems because they have a mix of arterials and mid-density housing clusters that should have urban frequency type service but the vast majority of developed area is low density sprawl where coverage services are better at reaching the dependent population. Because of the large area and low population they can’t afford frequency and there is a time trap whether you minimize running time or transfer time. Either way you are making the system less usable for some people. Different constituencies have different interests and outcomes in the answer. In dense urban areas that can afford to provide frequency and good connections on the street, that’s better for everyone.

    1. Thanks for the detailed descriptions of the pros and cons of off-street transit centers. I didn’t spend enough time at the transit centers to discern a pulse, although circuitous routing from Mjodd may reflect equalization of travel times between routes.

  3. You could say they “moved there” or you could say that rapidly increasing population left no other option for the newcomers.

    1. Iceland’s 20th-century population growth is INEXTRICABLE from the migration of wealth, opportunity, and essentially 100% of young people to the Reykjavik area.

      1. I guess I’m just positing a kind of societal primogeniture at work.

        So, during the last millennium, at some point, only the first son would inherit the land, and the other sons would go off to fight wars, become millers etc.

        That doesn’t change in absolute numbers the rural population. It just means that towns, cities, are just overflow bins for the population that cannot “fit” on rural, self-sustaining land.

      2. Almost 100% of rural Iceland’s economy is in fishing or in energy production. There is virtually no arable land.

        The population growth is in the city, because the city is where all of the opportunity and quality of life lies.

        [ah]

      3. So the question is, is the number of people being “carried” by the land…or by access to shoreline and fishing spots constant even during the migrations to the urban centers.

      4. Since the resolution of the Cod Wars, Iceland controls a very generous Exclusive Economic Zone of fish-filled waters.

        Nevertheless, the fishing villages on the island’s perimeter are so few and so tiny that they make Alaska look like a beacon of population density by comparison. It’s pretty safe to say that any Icelander who wished to migrate away from the city and get involved in fishing would have plenty of room to settle and plenty of fish to catch.

        But that’s not what people have any interest in doing in this highly educated, economically innovative, culturally flourishing nation. They want to interact socially, and they want to engage with the outside world. That’s why they pretty much the entire nation has migrated to the city.

        (p.s. Fishing trawlers leave from Reykjavik too. You can return to the work of your forbears and still live urban!)

      5. Yes, I do. The “fishing capacity” of rural Iceland is not maxed out.

        People are choosing to live in the city because they are choosing to live in the city.

        Your unsubstantiated hypothesis is provably incorrect. As is every unsubstantiated hypothesis you’ve ever proffered.

      6. Oh, those poor people who want to live in rural areas but are stuck in the city! There are so many of them, just like in China and Japan.

  4. Visiting my cousins in Iceland a few years ago, I recall that Strætó completely overhauled its route map from a hub-and-spoke system to a neighborhood-centric one, and at the same time raised fares by a large amount. The Icelanders complained that the new routes were too circuitous and didn’t go anywhere useful. I believe that the rolling stock is bought second-hand from a variety of EU countries; I noticed this because each bus I boarded was slightly different, and there were still a few placards on the buses in French, German, and a variety of other languages.

  5. “On the positive side, every bus I rode was on-time to the minute. Apparently Reykjavik was able to build its way out of congestion, and the Straeto organization has a strict culture for punctuality.”

    Either this is very impressive, or every route has lots of schedule padding. In Seattle, my experience has shown that, even with no traffic on the roads, whatsoever, the only way a transit bus can be timed to the minute is a bus that serves almost no riders. Otherwise, the usual bus delays (fare payment, people stopping the driver to ask which bus to take to get to such-and-such, driver going very slow so he can chat with passengers while he drives, random wheelchair loads, etc.) make punctuality to the minute virtually impossible, even without any traffic on the roads.

    1. Nordic punctuality? Part of a lame transit system IS culture. Even in an otherwise lame transit system, if it’s NORDIC, it runs on schedule, but if it’s ANGLO, it runs late.

    2. There is a decent amount of padding in the system, and rush hour is nothing compared to what you would see in Seattle.

    1. “There was a poisonous mist of fluorine and sulfur dioxide which settled over the entire country, burning up grazing lands and killing livestock… It is believed that up to 80 percent of livestock died, and an estimated one-fifth of the human population of Iceland (approximately 10,000 people) perished from the combined effects of the mists and the ensuing famine”.

      The “Mist Hardships” is undoubtedly a silly-sounding name, but the mists themselves don’t sound like much of a laughing matter.

  6. Having lived in Reykjavik in 2007-2008, I can confirm that there are a lot of milk runs in the system. I lived pretty close to downtown and worked 2 miles away from my house, but the bus commute would take a pretty circuitous route so my door-to-door time was about 30 minutes (considering there is no real traffic jams in Reykjavik). In the summer I would just walk the two miles to/from work in about 40 minutes. In the winter I would take the bus though, due to the slushy icyness of the sidewalks and the depressingly dark weather :). And also due to the fact that the old, pretty cemetery I would walk through on my commute felt distinctly creepier in the dark winter…

    In general Reykjavik has a cute, walkable downtown, but once you get away from that core it gets much sprawlier than most European cities.

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