When Taking the Bus Is for Losers

Time: 11 pm. Place: My house in Reykjavik, Iceland. Who: Daughter (18) and Myself.

Daughter: Do you need the car tomorrow?

Me: Yes. Why?

D: I don't know if I can get a ride home after school.*

M: Why don't you take the bus?

D: I don't take the bus.

I don't take the bus. Like: I don't DO the bus.

Reykjavík's public transport system has a serious problem. Not just because my daughter refuses to use it, but because her attitude is a reflection of how most people view using public transport in Iceland's capital Reykjavík: It's for losers.

This attitude towards public transport is unusual for a European country. Most nations throughout the continent have extremely efficient ways of transporting people from one place to another, and most people are happy to use them.

Frankly, I don't know what came first - the image problem or the fact that the Reykjavík's (privately-run) public transport system is like something out of the dark ages. Reykjavík's buses are large, cumbersome contraptions that usually drive around virtually empty, spewing smog. And scheduling is a problem: most buses run only every 15 minutes during peak times and every 30 minutes during off-peak times.

Moreover Reykjavík is very spread out (whoever was put in charge of urban planning clearly did not have sustainability or energy conservation at the top of the list) so getting from one place to another by bus is pretty convoluted. A quick online search reveals that getting to from my house to the Smáralind shopping mall (also known as penis mall, for obvious reasons) by bus takes 50 minutes there, and roughly one hour back. The same trip takes me around 15 minutes each way by car.

Also, taking the bus in Iceland is expensive - a single fare for an adult within the capital area is ISK 280 (USD 1.5) - which probably does not sound like much for most US citizens, but keep in mind that the economic crisis has rendered the dollar to krona exchange rate extremely favourable. Most Icelanders consider this a hefty fare, particularly since you can drive pretty much anywhere within the capital area in about 20 minutes.

Amazingly, the bus company offers no discount for students. My daughter, since she is over 18, pays the same as any adult, even though her disposable income is pretty restricted. For a couple of years - in 2007 and 2008 - the city of Reykjavík and the bus company experimented with giving all students free bus passes for the duration of the school year. This resulted in buses that were full to capacity every morning and much higher utilization throughout the day. Alas, that initiative went down the toilet this year, along with the rest of the economy.

And so, Icelanders don't take the bus much. Personally I don't remember the last time I was on a bus in Reykjavík - it was that long ago. A private vehicle in Iceland is practically considered as essential as a refrigerator. Iceland has one of the highest car ownership ratios in the world - at the end of 2008 there were 209,740 private passenger vehicles registered in Iceland, while at the same time the population was 319,268, according to Statistics Iceland. In my household, we have two cars for three people and, well, sometimes that doesn't seem quite enough.

The sad thing in all this is that, with its abundance of hydroelectric power, Iceland could easily run a transportation system that is both efficient and green. Trams on Reykjavík's streets would make such eminent sense, and trains connecting major centres would be an excellent solution. But in a country with such a tiny population, investment in that sort of infrastructure is just not viable, at least not in the current economic climate. Until then, I guess we'll be clogging up those streets in our cars and painting that thin line of smog on the skyline on calm winter days.

* On the mornings when she doesn't take my car she gets a ride with her stepfather or a friend.