Posted by: neilh10 | March 22, 2011

Public transport in Iceland. Why a plan is needed.

As a guest in Iceland, I am incredibly wary about making any sort of comment on how the place is run. I’m naturally interested in politics and what people have to say about it, but I’m not in any position to start telling people how things should be.

But, sometimes, it just gets to the point where I can’t control myself. That’s why I’ve written an article today in Reykjavik Grapevine, criticising what I see as the absurd and ridiculous situation with the flight network in Iceland.

The point is, that it is only seems absurd and ridiculous to me. To the Icelanders, it all makes perfect sense. The flight network works to get the Icelanders where they need to go. If you are in Isafjordur, you want to get to Reykjavik in the morning and back again in the afternoon. If you are in Reykavik, the opposite is true.

Everyone is happy. The airport is in the centre of town, there are no securocrats or burdensome EU regulations messing things up, you can basically just get where you need to, and thats that. What could be simpler?

However, despite the increase of tourism in the Westfjords – in no small part due to the fact that the lonely planet has just listed it fifth on its list of up and coming global travel destinations for 2011 – the amount of passengers on the route from Reykjavik to Isafjordur is actually decreasing. One of the reasons why is that the road has been improved to the point where you can drive to Reykjavik in under five hours. So, if you have more than one person travelling, it is probably going to be more cost effective to drive.

As a result, the air fares are going up. But this is only going to make people less likely to use the service. There is a danger, in the way I see things, that the route will enter in to a spiral decline of increasing prices, decreasing frequencies and state subsidy.

Of course, flying itself is environmentally damaging, and you might start wondering whether any of this actually matters.

Leaving aside concerns about carbon emissons and global warming, flying burns up a lot of oil, which is a depleting resource that we need to preserve. It might be better if people just drove and shared lifts, as they increasingly do at the moment. But, if you are a business, good flight connections are essential. For instance, if you wanted to locate a graphic design business in Isafjordur, you need to be able to get out to your clients in London, New York and the global marketplace. As a trained urban planner, I am well aware of the importance of this. Connectivity is key to the economic development of cities, towns and regions.

Good connectivity is also vital to promoting tourism. I know a lot of Icelanders kind of shrug their shoulders about this, viewing the current influx of tourists as a temporary blip on their interesting history of natural disaster prone aloofness, but the simple fact is that tourism can lead to more jobs and investment in rural areas. It strikes me that it is a much more desirable solution than speculative gold mining, oil refineries, or alimunium smelters.

If you don’t have this connectivity, then the chances are you will miss out on both business investment, and tourism revenue.

This brings me to my point, as made in the Grapevine Article. It strikes me that the Icelandic countryside has developed, over the past two decades, without any regard to the need for global connectivity. The domestic flight times and network within Iceland is run in total and absolute ignorance of the need to make any kind of international connection. They are different airlines, and they even use different airports! There is no through ticketing – If either flight is delayed – then tough!

Iceland desperately needs an integrated transport strategy. The domestic flights need to connect with the international flights out of Iceland and into the global marketplace. They need to be marketed and ticketed together. This can only help bring in investment in to places like the Westfjords – the part of Iceland that needs this investment most.



  1. Quite agree. It’s rather frustrating when friends are visiting that I have to tell them that due to the distance between airports and flight timings, the flights from UK and Europe get in just a teensy bit too late to catch the last flight to Isafjordur, forcing them to fork out for a night in Reykjavik on the way out and often on the way back too. For the most part of the year though this route is a commuter/visiting relatives route for Icelanders and as long as something ‘works’ to whatever extent that is…things don’t change very fast around here.

  2. Hi Sarah – thanks for commenting!. I thought of writing some kind of academic type of paper explaining precisely what the problem is and why people should be concerned – but I opted instead to rant on my blog (hey – its easier!). The grapevine article didn’t get published in the end, yesterday, but hopefully it will soon, and if it does, I’ll link to it here.

    I think they could make the flights connect for most of the year by simply moving the flight from Reykjavik to Isafjordur back to around 6.30. That’s all it would take. If they were going to make the flights connect in winter, they would need to adjust the time of the flights in from Europe, which might be a bigger ask – but not beyond the realms of possibility. (one great thing I’ve found about Iceland is that lots of things are possible – even if they happen slowly!).

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