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In Focus: Borgarlína Project Splits Opinions

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In Focus: Borgarlína Project Splits Opinions

Bus in Reykjavík

Photo: Páll Stefánsson.

Borgarlína is an ambitious project to improve Reykjavík’s transportation network. The topic has split citizens of Reykjavík in recent months into two warring factions and is hotly contested as city elections draw nearer. Borgarlína is a bus-rapid-transit system which is supposed to answer Reykjavík’s vehicular problems. The project is intended to tackle problems such as commute time, declining air quality as well as creating a path for a more densely populated city. As Icelanders flock to the capital in greater numbers than ever, now is the time for action.

Where do we stand?

The lack of long term planning in Reykjavík city has long been heavily criticized. Haphazard decisions and a lack of direction have bogged down decisive actions to tackle societal issues. One issue that has reared its head in recent years is the ever-increasing traffic in Reykjavík city. Traffic was a borderline non-existent factor in city life until recently, while the effects of urbanization have caught up with the citizens of Reykjavík. Although the roads might appear to be empty at times, the roads are bogged down at rush hour travel times. Reykjavík is now a sprawl, as the expansion of the city has mostly been in the form of expanding the suburbs. In addition to that, dust pollution has led to a decline in air quality.

Transportational improvements

The project Borgarlína (City-line) intends to upgrade parts of the existing road infrastructure by fashioning out long stretches of separated public transport lanes. It is spearheaded by Reykjavík city, in co-operation with surrounding towns such as Hafnarfjörður, Kópavogur and Mosfellsbær. Buses will have priority in the Borgarlína lanes, while they will also be open for emergency services. Borgarlína will make public transportation more competitive with the privately-owned vehicle. It suffices to say that the privately owned vehicle reigns supreme in Iceland. The number of registered motor vehicles exceeded the number of Icelanders at the end of 2016, as there were 344,664 cars for the 335,878 Icelanders. (numbers from July 2016). A higher service level for public transportation is believed to be the answer in this fight. One of the stated goals of the Borgarlína project is to increase the percentage of travellers who use public transportation. Only 4% of travellers used public transportation in 2016 and the Borgarlína project intends to transform that to 12% of passengers by 2040. The more people that travel with Borgarlína, fewer cars will be on the roads, the thinking goes.

It’s a numbers game

Those in favour of the project claim it will shorten commute time, tackle declining air quality while creating the framework for a more densely populated city at the same time. Population projections estimate that the inhabitants of the Reykjavík metropolitan area will increase by 40% in the next 25 years. That is 70,000 people in 25 years – a number that will take the Reykjavík sprawl to a little less than 300,000 people. If we account for the ever-increasing number of travellers, it appears that Reykjavík is heading for a substantial increase in traffic. Without changing today’s transportation patterns, the commute time of the average Reykjavík citizen would rise by 65%. At the current rate of expansion in Reykjavík, commute distances would increase by 55% and traffic jams would increase by a substantial 80%. Reykjavík has also experienced high levels of air pollution, caused by the sheer number of cars on the road, many of them with studded tires. The Borgarlína project intends to tackle the root of the problem by removing cars from the road, while also ensuring that Reykjavík will not sprawl out even further.

Of cost and critics

Borgarlína is not without its critics as many believe that the project is too costly and will do little to improve the current situation. It is estimated that each kilometre of road improvements will cost between 11 to 11.5 million dollars (based on prices in January, 2017). Borgarlína is projected to encompass 57 kilometres in total, so the cost could run between 627 to 655.5 million dollars over the course of 20 years. The project will be completed in segments and the first part is estimated to be completed in 2022. However, it is projected that a further expansion of Reykjavík city would prove even more costly, as the transport network would have to be built from scratch, along with all other infrastructure.

Furthermore, a focal point for the denouncers has been the upcoming technology of self-driving cars, which many believe will be the answer to the traffic problem. It is also claimed that improvements to the public transports system will not change the behaviour of Icelanders. The results from past projects are not endearing; bus trips were increased heavily at key points to ensure the quality and reliability of buses. However, the usage percentage stayed put in place at 4%. The problem had to do with traffic jams rather than anything else – as there were simply more buses stuck on the roads.

A city at crossroads

For many, Borgarlína is a matter of quality of life as it reduces traffic jams, improves air quality and creates a denser city. Reykjavík has hitherto provided the best of both city life and a relaxed suburban lifestyle. Following years of urbanization, its citizens are now faced with higher commute times – something that was believed to be inexistent in Iceland. Borgarlína has been a focal point of debates surrounding the forthcoming city elections. Such a radical project has not been proposed before, in a country where improvements to the transportation system have mainly focused on building tunnels rural parts of the country. Borgarlína is evidence that city planners are waking up to the fact that if nothing is done, Reykjavík might end up as the Los Angeles of the north.

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