Adventures in Public Transportation: The Strætó

We’ve been making good and frequent use of the Reykjavik bus system (called the Strætó), so I’ve had a lot of opportunities to observe Icelandic public transportation in action. The Strætó has a lot going for it: the buses are clean (coming from New York City subways, this is a big one, and not to be taken for granted), and while they don’t run all night (the last bus on most routes is just before midnight), they do run reasonably frequently during the week–particularly in the morning/after work hours. Almost all the buses have easy-to-read digital signs above the driver which indicate the next stop, and these stops are also generally announced clearly over a speaker system (also a big change from the NYC subways). The route map is very easy to decipher. The system runs buses from Reykjavik into three or four surrounding suburbs. There is an extensive and easy-to-use website (available in English!) that you can use to plan your trip to/from precise addresses and/or local points of interest (schools, cinemas, swimming pools, etc.). All very good things. But there are, of course, some idiosyncrasies and pointers for future Strætó commuters worth sharing, too:

(If you want to get into the spirit of things, you might check out this song, “Strætó 14,” by the Icelandic singer Þórir Georg. I’m not sure what the song is about exactly, but it is at least titularly about a bus line, so that’s a good start.)

-Many of the routes start or begin in neighborhoods where there are just not a lot of bus commuters. Take our own line, the number 12 (holla!): this bus runs from a hub well out outside of Reykjavík, through the city center, past the university, and ends right on the ocean, not 30 feet from our door. Two of the last three stops are within spitting distance from one another, and I’ve definitely ridden with people who make use of both stops, 20 feet apart, instead of just getting off at the same time. But usually, once it’s past the university stops, the bus is empty, save Mark and I. Twice now, the bus driver has turned around and yelled back to me to double check that I was on the right bus, and that being the case, to check which stop I wanted so that he could blow by the other ones without pause. The number 12 is basically the bus that the city of Reykjavík operates in order to give us a ride home. (Mark’s observation, not mine.) Many of you remember the way I anthropomorphized the G train. The number 12 promises to occupy a similar place in my heart.

-Most of these buses are driven fast. Like, super duper fast. On highways and through residential areas alike. (They may actually be faster in the residential areas.) And they take off pretty much as soon as you get in, even if you’re still paying your fare. Even if you think that you have great surf board/subway/train/bus balance, you really should hold on. You’re not expecting the driver to take the roundabout at 80mph (or whatever the km/hr equivalent is), but he’s going to.

-Buses run pretty much on schedule (yay!), but occasionally–because of the speedy driving, no doubt–they will run a bit fast. If, hypothetically, your bus is arriving at the stop earlier than scheduled and you start running for it (G train style, for you Brooklynites), neither will the bus driver wait nor will the individuals standing at the bus stop make any effort to get the bus driver to wait. Rather, you will arrive at the bus stop, probably swearing, just as it blasts away (very possibly empty), and the other commuters at the stop will just sort of shrug at you, or not look at you at all.

-Should you catch your bus and sit safely down before blast off, stay vigilant. When you arrive at your stop, exit through the middle or back door, and do so expeditiously. The doors are automatic, and if you get caught, it might take longer than you’d hope to get them open again. (Iceland isn’t generally big on safety measures like railings along sheer cliff faces or doors that open back up if something/someone gets in the way.) Point of fact: I watched a young mother get caught in the back door this weekend with her very little girl on the other side of the door, and even with her yelling, and me yelling (in English), and finally someone else yelling (in Icelandic), it took quite awhile for her to get pried loose, and it looked like it hurt. The bus driver eventually saw fit  to get off and see what the fuss was about, but basically just gave the characteristic shrug when she said she’d been caught in the door, pointed her in another direction (towards what I don’t know), got back on the bus, and kept going, at mach 3.

-Another note on the doors: they don’t always close before the bus continues moving. One of the reasonably friendly drivers on the number 12 (holla!) has a particular tendency to floor the gas after dropping people off, and usually does so well before the middle and back doors are closed. I imagine that this will make for some very chilly rides in the winter time. There’s also a lot of alarms and buzzers that go off each time the bus starts moving with the doors open, which is really off-putting until it becomes really amusing.

-And lastly, as a student, you are entitled to a discounted nine month bus pass, but only once your kennitala has been activated in The System, and these can only be purchased online, via the Icelandic version of the website. If you go to the window of one of the larger bus stations and try to explain that the website is not allowing you to purchase a student card because it doesn’t yet recognize your kennitala, you will receive a shrug, and, if you’re lucky, be directed to email someone who will then just tell you that you need to wait some more.

So there’s the Strætó, in a nutshell.


7 thoughts on “Adventures in Public Transportation: The Strætó

  1. Hi! I was wondering if you could tell me how much the student bus pass costs. I’m coming to Iceland as a BA student for the ISL program and I couldn’t find the cost of the pass anywhere on the website. Please and thanks!

    • Hi, Shaana-

      The reason you can’t find the student card information is because is it only included on the Icelandic version of the website and they only keep information up about it for the current season. Right now, they have up the information about the spring card, which is valid from January 1 – August 31, 2013 (see here: That semester card costs 26.000. In the fall, check the homepage for the Icelandic version of the website ( and click on the “Nemakort” link. That should take you to a page where you can apply for the student card when you arrive.

      The one thing to keep in mind, however, is that you cannot apply for a student bus card until you have a kennitala, and until that kennitala hits the transportation database. This will take some time. So when you arrive, it probably makes sense to get one of the monthly or bi-weekly cards to hold you over until you can apply for the student card online.

      Hope this helps and see you next year! I will also be starting in the BA program in the fall.

      • Hi,
        Thank you so much! I had been scouring the Icelandic version of the webpage for a while now, but I neglected to notice nemakort right there at the bottom of the page…

        Yes, thankfully I will be arriving in Iceland one month before the term starts in order to let all the shit hit the fan so to speak, including any crazy things that may happen while trying to get a kennitala!

        Thanks again! Wow, that’s awesome, I’ll have to see if we’re in similar courses then. I’ve been much enjoying your blog in the meanwhile as I wait to return to the island. : )

  2. Glad this was helpful! I’d love to know more about your prior experience here–have you studied Icelandic much already? How did you come to this study? You say “return” to the island–do you have a lot of prior familiarity with Iceland?

    • Ahh yes, I’ve been self-studying Icelandic on and off since 2010. Unfortunately, not much of it stuck because I was also studying Latin, Norwegian, and French in school. I can read children’s books to a certain extent and I finished Icelandic Online 1&2. My friend is also a 3rd year in the BA program and has lent me her 1st year textbooks to study from. My speaking is not so much though besides a few terse reactions and eina með öllu after ordering one too many hot dogs.

      Besides being a linguaphile I actually got interested in Icelandic because of my two best friends, an Icelander and a Finn respectively who live in Iceland. I stayed with them in Iceland from Dec 14th~ March 15th 2012 and basically roamed around Iceland aimlessly. I suppose I have as much familiarity as anyone who has lived there for 3 months. 🙂 Needless to say I didn’t want to leave haha.

      How about yourself? I see you are a Fulbright scholar, what made you choose Iceland?

      • You sound like quite the linguist! Are you fluent in all the languages you study? I’m told that learning languages gets easier the more languages you acquire, and it does seem to me that people who already speak three languages don’t seem to have much trouble adding a fourth, but it still rather amazes me.

        I came to Iceland specifically to study Icelandic. I’m a librarian and a literature lover and want to translate contemporary Icelandic literature into English. I always make sure to say that this is a rather long-term goal, though I feel like I am making progress, even in just the short time I have been here.

      • Ahh no, the only languages I’m fluent in are English and Hindi. I only got so far in Latin as to translate the Aeneid and other poetry and I have only studied Norwegian and French for 1 year at university level respectively. I can say that languages do come very quickly to me but I have a bad habit of wanting to study everything at once. I tend to excuse myself as attempting to become a tongue gymnast and that it would be practical for when I later start in a speech pathology program.

        That is amazingly awesome! For a while I considered becoming a librarian after being a circulation assistant at Augsburg College except I kept distracted in their Nordic literature section and bringing back 15 books to check out when I was supposed to be shelving. 🙂 Ancient literature has somehow always appealed to me and certainly it’s a lot easier to find the sagas in English than it is any contemporary Icelandic literature so I must commend you for that! I think the only modern Icelandic lit I have picked up so far is Englar Alheimsins. The translation felt a little dry to me though, so I really look forward to picking up the skills to read it in Icelandic.

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