Norwegians have long complained about their highways, the vast majority of which are dangerous, two-lane roads where head-on collisions are far from infrequent. A new international survey confirms that Norway’s road system gets poor marks, while local research suggests that pork-barrel politics favoring outlying areas gets much of the blame.
The survey of 12,000 business and government leaders was conducted for the World Economic Forum and placed Norway, known for its oil wealth, 48th on a list of 134 countries ranked by the quality of their roads.
Norway lagged behind countries including Portugal, Croatia and Greece in Europe and Botswana in Africa. It scored 4.1 on a scale of one to seven, with one characterized as “underdeveloped” and seven being “effective” by international standards.
Don’t blame the landscape
According to Oslo newspaper Aftenposten, which has been running a series of articles highlighting Norway’s inadequate transport system, mountainous Norway can’t even blame its geographical challenges for its poor ranking. Switzerland, for example, placed second on the list, despite its own high mountains and deep valleys.
“Norway is a beautiful country,” the Danish head of beverage company Ringnes, Jesper Friis Petersen, told Aftenposten. “It’s just too bad that it’s so difficult to get around to see all the beauty.” Ringnes, which has to truck its products all over the country, faces much higher transportation costs in Norway because of the poor highway system.
“There’s no question that Norway has under-invested in its roads,” Petersen said, claiming the country is in “a category of its own” when it comes to delivery time and costs. It takes at least eight hours and eight minutes, for example, to drive from Oslo to Stavanger because of roads that only allow an average speed of less than 70 kilometers (42 miles) per hour. That compares to five hours and 20 minutes to drive the same distance between Porto and Faro in Portugal. Only in Albania is travel time longer than in Norway.
In neighboring Sweden, which has invested in four-lane highways and wide two-lane roads in outlying areas, average travel speeds are nearly 90kph (54mph), while in France they’re over 110kph.
The lack of four-lane divided highways has often been blamed on mountainous territory and fjords, but Norway is also known for its tunnels and bridges. The problem is that they’re most often built in remote areas where local politicians have secured state funding to bring jobs and investment that in turn can bring them votes, claim two university researchers who studied years of road projects in Norway. Long-standing policies that favor rural areas over metropolitan areas, to keep rural areas populated, have cost major transportation corridors dearly. Hundreds of millions of kroner have been spent on bridges to remote northern islands used by a few hundred cars a day, while heavily trafficked areas have been ignored.
The few motorways that do exist in Norway have often been built on a piecemeal basis, with only small stretches being completed at a time. Transport officials and economists now say much better long-term planning and funding is needed to meet demand.
Even the current transport minister, Liv Signe Navarsete, has had to admit that road investment in Norway has been “terrible” for the past 30 years. Navarsete, who hails from the Center Party, which champions rural interests, claims it’s been difficult to win political support for the idea that highway infrastructure can fuel economic growth. “Because of our oil, we haven’t seen the need to upgrade our infrastructure,” she said.
The transport minister is quick to note that the current government has boosted road spending by NOK 15 billion, and that southern and eastern Norway will get more attention.