7 Popular Misconceptions about Traffic in Istanbul
‘Slowly but surely, the automobile is killing the city. Now in the 21st century, we must choose between the car and the city, because we cannot have both.’
-European Urban Planning Code (taken from the İETT Website)
It’s estimated that 400 new vehicles join Istanbul’s roads everyday.
Below are a summary of my opinions about things that people often say about traffic in Istanbul along with my responses to them. I wrote it, by the way, while being stuck in traffic.
1. Istanbul has traffic because the city is old.
Paris is old, too. In fact, it has crazy zig-zag streets that don’t meet at right angles. Sound like Istanbul? However, visitors will tell you that Paris is quite traffic-free. Why? Because of a lower population and a fantastic metro.
2. Metro construction in Istanbul is behind because of the threat of earthquakes.
Yes, naturally this will make the planning and construction process slower. Japan, however, has a high incidence of earthquakes as well as expansive metros in its large cities. Let’s not kid ourselves: metro construction is behind because of poor planning and a lack of political will.
3. Bicycles are not a viable alternative in Istanbul because of hills.
Again, Japan is an extremely hilly country. Yet 60% of Japanese bike overall and 15% of work commutes are made by bike. There is such a thing as hill gear.
Bicycles are, in fact, not a viable alternative because of the lack of bike lanes and the unsafe habits of drivers. There are no statistics available on daily bicycle use in Turkey, perhaps because it barely exists.
4. ‘I need a car because I have kids.’
I’m sorry, but you don’t need to whisk your family away to an Ağaoğlu high-rise that can only be entered by car. You can live in a regular apartment near a bus stop like the rest of us.
Oh, but you mean you have a lot of shopping to do? You’re going to take the kids skiing, you say? That’s when you take a taxi or rent a car with all the money you saved from not making a car payment, not buying gasoline, not buying a pass to cross the bridge, not paying car insurance and not paying for parking.
I usually take the ‘I have kids’ explanation as code language for ‘my family and I don’t mix with regular people.’ I personally think that people use their children as a justification to live in gated communities that by virtue of being accessible only by car are impregnable by riff-raff or people who don’t have enough money for a car. This way, they have a ready pretext for driving to work, so they don’t have to mingle with smelly, regular people on the metrobus.
5. Istanbul has traffic because there are more new buildings than new roads.
There are too many of the wrong kinds of new buildings. Take Büyükdere Caddesi, the wide boulevard connecting Zincirlikuyu and Levent. The two gigantic shopping centers, Metro City and Kanyon, clog up this road with drivers trying to get in and out of their underground parking structures. It seems that when giving construction projects the go-ahead, little thought is given to how they will impact the roads. Do we really need two gigantic shopping centers on Büyükdere Caddesi–especially when Trump Towers, Astoria and Cevahir are just around the corner in Mecidiyeköy? Did the planners take into consideration the fact that this road had already been suffering from traffic because of its position between the first and second bridges?
Another example is Kavacık, where numerous office building projects have rapidly gone up. It’s clear from the narrow streets, family-owned business and squat adobe houses that it was once a village somewhat removed from the city. The onslaught of new office buildings with their huge underground parking lots have brought a flood of cars to its narrow streets, making the two-lane road that was once a small-town main street into a dangerous and noisy obstacle. In the absence of any traffic lights, pedestrians must cross at their own risk. It’s impossible to enjoy a quiet cup of tea in during rush hour, as the commuters engage in a battle royale–honking, maneuvering, and driving into one another. When I mention the fate of Kavacık to friends, they confirm that it was indeed once a quiet, peaceful place. They say that Beykoz is still like Kavacık once was, but that it won’t be long before the land developers get their hands on it, as well.
6. Building New Roads Will Relieve Traffic
Building new roads and tunnels will, in fact create more traffic. In Istanbul it has been very popular for the city to make flyovers, viaducts and to take traffic underground–as in the new ‘pedestrianization’ project in Taksim. I say that this approach is a way for people to try to have cars as well as not have traffic. Unfortunately, these newly built roads eventually get clogged up as well. As a result, all of the trees and historic buildings destroyed to create them end up being sacrificed in vain.
7. Cars make Turkey modern.
In the 1980s Turkey’s former Prime Minister, Turgut Özal, famously proclaimed ‘tren komünist işidir’ or ‘trains are for communists.’ Thus, does Turkey plunge head-first into the cycle of automobile dependency–building freeways instead of intercity trains, wide boulevards and tunnels instead of metro lines.
Having grown up in the Detroit area, I am a first-hand witness of the detrimental effects of this infrastructure model on urban life. The city that was once a lively hub of commerce and culture has become spread out over vast distances thanks to hundreds of miles of interconnected asphalt freeways. Most people spend hours commuting between suburbs for work on crowded freeways without ever venturing into the center of the city. As a result, economic life in the city itself is nearly dead. Dependency on the car has crippled any political will to develop mass transit, so those who don’t have a car for whatever reason have no alternative transportation.
Because of this, I support the efforts of many American cities to move away from this model by developing public transit, expanding bike lanes and in some cases dismantling freeways that run through cities.
In Turkey people are deeply in love with cars, judging by consumers’ willingness to pay exorbitant taxes on vehicles and gasoline in order to possess one. Car advertisements are everywhere, as well, even in publications meant to promote environmental awareness. In the December 2012 issue of National Geographic Türkiye, five automobile advertisements shared space with an article about the dangers of greenhouse gases. I had always believed in National Geographic as a magazine that promoted sensitivity to nature and history. When I saw that they were willing to perpetuate the glorification of car ownership, I was shocked at their hypocrasy. National Geographic Türkiye: You’re on notice.
I truly pity people who drive cars day in and day out. Roads made for cars are ugly, while small streets built for pedestrians are lively and intimate. I would rather breath the fresh air, even if it is rather polluted with car exhaust, than the artificial smells of the inside of a car. I enjoy being a pedestrian, even if the overpasses of Istanbul can often be brutal. I notice more things–smalls shops, street animals, flowers, etc. I also have more freedom to stop and enjoy them than I would if I had a giant machine attached to me. I hope that more people in Istanbul will embrace the joys of pedestrianism.