by CHAD NEWTON
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.