Jerom Theunissen Photography


September 13-19 

City in Context

Istanbul is a city that faces unique challenges in comparison with other great metropolises around the world. Located on two continents, Europe and Asia, Istanbul truly sits where east meets west. This central location has seen Istanbul beccoming the beating heart of Turkey's economy. Istanbul's urbanization rate and urban density rank among the top of OECD countries. In addition, the motorization rate has increased by an average of 4.5 percent each year. Since 2000, Istanbul’s population almost doubled and still continues to grow about two percent annually. 

The city has the unique urban form with hilly terrain divided by the Bosporus Strait, where urbanization has spread into two sides: Europe and Asia. In 1970s, although there were many commercial functions near Taksim Square, the Historical Peninsula (where the Haya Sofia and the Blue Mosque is located) was the true central business district (CBD), and financial institutions, specific offices and specialized retail were located there. 

The land use pattern in Istanbul began to change dramatically just after the private car appeared in 1967 and the first Bosporus Bridge in opened in 1974. The first impact of the Bosporus Bridge was on the distribution of the population between two sides of the city. Nearly 80% of the population was living on the European Side of Istanbul in the year 1965. This ratio has decreased down to 76% in 5 years and to 73% in 10 years.  The second impact was the decentralization of industrial and commercial services, causing the Historical Peninsula to lose its role of the CBD because of the relocation of both industrial and commercial services. This had knock on effects for more infrastructure to be built to serve large groups of people moving further distances, across the river to various destinations throughout the city. Challenges regarding mobility, urban renewal, social stratification and sprawl, as well as spatial and functional segregation are more acutely felt.

Since then, the major issue of Istanbul's transportation situation is congestion, ranking as the #1 problem amongst citizens. Over the past few decades, for example, an explosion of car ownership resulting from Istanbul’s prosperity has put severe pressure on the city’s road system and has increased air pollution. Peak hour highway speeds range between 8-10 kph, 23% of Istanbul commuters spend more than 3 hoursin traffic daily, and 22% of Istanbul commuters spend 2-3 hours in traffic. Coupled with an expected increase in vehicle kilometers traveled (VKT), deprivation of access to affordable transport and more exposure to air and noise pollution will hinder quality of life in the city of Istanbul. These challenges are precisely why I wanted to visit the city to explore what was being done to combat congestion and provide sustainable urban mobility for the city's residents.

Public Transportation in Istanbul

The public transportation system in Istanbul has expanded significantly in the past decade to catch up with the pace of growth and the city's changing urban structure. Turkey's national government has become increasingly willing to invest in improving its cities’ public transportation systems. Even though public transport is a local initiative, the national government has also adopted a policy to improve the conditions of transport systems in all medium-size and large cities in Turkey, providing significant funds for projects. One of the most important examples of this is the revitalization of urban rail transit systems in Istanbul. Like Rome, the city is undergoing some "rail therapy," planning to expand the city's rail system to 495.35 kilometers by 2019 and of 710.95 kilometers by 2023. The map below shows several lines without color, indicating they are under construction or are being planned.

To integrate the different modes, the Municipality of Istanbul introduced an electronic ticketing system (Istanbulkart) that allows for discounted transfers within the public transport network (buses, ferries and rail transit system) and better integration of the diverse modes on offer.

Metrobüs - Istanbul's Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) System

Metrobüs was initiated in 2005 when the government realized that digging a metro system across Istanbul to move the ever increasing population around was financially difficult. So Metrobüs was born, consisting of a 50 km (31.1 miles) bus rapid transit route with 45 stations. The route follows the city’s ring-road via Avcılar, Zincirlikuyu and the Bosphorus Bridge to Söğütlüçeşme using dedicated bus lanes for most of the route. The busway opened in 2007 after two years of construction, and carries approximately 800,000 passengers daily. As the only mode of transportation that avoids traffic, runs 24 hours, and can get you from the westernmost parts of European Istanbul to several neighborhoods on the eastern side, the service immediately reached capacity due to its popularity. Unfortunately, this means a less-than-optimal quality of service is delivered to the people of Istanbul (see video below)

In May 2013, Istanbul announced investment commitments of US$ 11.5 million to improve station conditions along Istanbul’s Metrobüs bus rapid transit (BRT) corridor following recommendations from EMBARQ Turkey. Between 2010 and 2011, a total of 36 accidents occurred along the BRT corridor, most of which involved passengers at or near the station platforms. In an effort to improve safety along the corridor, EMBARQ Turkey conducted a road safety inspection of the system in December 2012 and presented its recommendations to the municipal government. Consequently, the city called for a large-scale retrofit of the BRT stations in order to reduce the number of fatalities and injuries within the system. EMBARQ Turkey will continue work with the public bus authority and the city government in assessing safety and accessibility on four new BRT corridors and optimizing the public bus system’s integration with the city's new subway network.

Conflicting goals: Expansion of Public Transport and Road Infrastructure

As stated previously, Istanbul's congestion problem has worsened over the past decade, due to an explosion of car ownership resulting from Istanbul’s new prosperity. The city's road system has had difficulty coping, and at the same time as investments in public transport have lagged. In the past ten years, Istanbul introduced a new underground train running East to West along the coast under the Bosporus, the Maramay line. This line, partially open when I visited, is meant to serve as a commuter rail line linking the European side with the city's easternmost side in Asia. The project, complementing the Metrobus, is an acknowledgement from the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality that a proper system of public transport constitutes, like in every city, the only solution to counter this massive threat to mobility. To this end, the city's aiming to more than triple the rail network from 202.5 km to 710.95 km by 2023.

At the same time, more motorway projects have been planned and implemented, widening roads and introducing new traffic lanes that could invite further traffic. Istanbul's plans up to 2019 include targeted upgrades and construction of almost 200 kilometers that will facilitate traffic flows in areas that are currently seen as "bottlenecks."  Road expansion projects can have counter-intuitive effects, largely due to a concept known as induced demand, which sees traffic congestion as a problem of supply and demand; increasing roadway capacity encourages more people to drive, thus failing to improve congestion. What's more, the additional right of way required for more asphalt fosters spatial divisions and destroys the delicate and subtle neighborhood structure of cities. In Istanbul this is no exception.

So while an enormous amount of Turkey’s budget has been allocated for rail expansions, the planning and design of their construction is lacking. Rail systems are approved without any coordination between road systems and broader transport strategies. This lack of coordination between transport departments is a major reason why Turkish cities run into such difficulties implementing transit-oriented development, and end up increasing the need to travel unnecessarily. 

The citizens I spoke with believe that their tax dollars are better spent on mass transport instead of new road construction. To overcome the lack of coordination, Turkey needs to craft clear and strategic regulations that integrates transport development teams with urban planners. If done right, the city government can provide urban transport projects that are integrated with individual city plans and strategies, almost certainly seeing more effective traffic solutions that promote sustainable mobility.

Istanbul's annual transport report for 2016 details all the projects the city is pursuing, including public transport and roadway expansions.

Meeting with Kevser Ustundag, Arzu Erturan, Merve Aki, and Eda Beyazit: Urban Mobility Researchers in Istanbul 

My last evening in Istanbul involved meeting with several professionals who work toward promoting human-centered transport solutions in the city. Kevser Ustundag (back left in the photo) is a professor in the Urban and Regional Planning department at Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University. She works closely on projects with local administrations, researchers, NGOs, volunteers and neighborhood residents to advocate for a rethinking of city streets and who they are for. This began with the 2007 campaign, "The Streets Belong to Us," which raises awareness of the negative consequences of car-oriented growth of cities, and to highlight opportunities for creating car-free living in car-dominated urban neighborhoods. Various activities were organised in order to revitalize street life for different groups such as paintings for children, picnics with neighbors, yoga/pilates workshops, bicycle tours, music, and street games. The video below shows Kevser's thoughts on congestion while speaking to NYC based Streetfilms

Arzu Erturan (front left) graduated from Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University, completing a bachelors and masters degree in the urban planning program, with a focus on public spaces. She currently works with Kevser on research projects and helped Kevser establish "Streets Belong to Us" as a formal NGO. Arzu told me her research has focused on the social benefits of transportation, in the realm of public spaces, accessibility, pedestrian and bicycle transportation systems. Arzu and Kevser together wrote the paper, "Reclaiming Streets as Places of Dialog: Car-free Sundays in Istanbul as an Experience of Social Dimension of Transportation." Give it a read here.

Merve Akı (back right) is the Urban Mobility Director at WRI Turkey Sustainable Cities, who shares Kevser and Arzu's passion for improving public spaces and public life in Istanbul within the lens of transport. Merve received her bachelors degree in City and Regional Planning from Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University and her master's degree in Urban Planning at Istanbul Technical University. Since working at WRI, she has worked closely on informing sustainable transport in Istanbul, including the Safe Cycling Design Manual for Istanbul and A Market Scan of How New Mobility Trands are Evolving in Turkey. Merve also told me about how WRI has worked with renowned human-centered urbanists Gehl Architects, to study Istanbul's public spaces and public life in a 2013 report.

My conversation with Istanbul's resident experts was engaging and offered important perspective to the latest developments relating to transport in Istanbul. As I left our meeting for the ferry back to the European side, I felt that people-centered transport can do so much more than move people from A to B: it can double as a space where the urban fabric is supported. This can make any city, including Istanbul, attractive and vibrant. 

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