Home » Inequality » Istanbul Immobilised: the Transport Problems of a Global Crossroads

Istanbul Immobilised: the Transport Problems of a Global Crossroads

There are few metropolises in the world that mean as much to their country as Istanbul does to Turkey. Representing a fifth of the Turkish population and economy, Istanbulites are a patchwork of citizens that come from every one of the country’s regions and walks of life. The city is a living museum of Turkey’s centuries-long journey to offer itself a better future- one based on constant innovation in commerce, the rule of law, and social/cultural attitudes. Ankara is Turkey’s capital, but Istanbul has always been its brain. The shocking neglect of the city’s transport infrastructure, however, makes Istanbul a brain with a severely paralysed nervous system.

It won’t take long after landing at one of Istanbul’s airports to realise that up to a third of your day might be spent caught in traffic. Every year, l in 300 people in the world spends time in Istanbul and comes to understand the dire state of its transportation system. Fascinatingly, Istanbul’s car ownership rates are not particularly high. Spread among the city’s 15 million denizens are only 1.8 million cars. Yet the average commuter can spend two to four hours per day in traffic. The city has a very diverse transport network, involving two bridges crossing the Bosphorus, a fleet of municipality-owned buses with separate lanes, ferry services, water taxis, private minibuses, and the dolmuş- a semi-formal shared taxi system.

Unfortunately, the combination of all of these services can create an impression of chaos more than opportunity. There are two particularly concerning end results. The first is an almost literal standstill in Istanbul urban life; the average Istanbulite makes only 1.74 trips from one part of the city to another per day, compared to 3.4 in German cities. The second is a vicious cycle in which citizens inadvertently exacerbate the problem by turning to private cars, which are both the source of traffic and the fastest existing means of transport. The following graph, taken from GIZ, shows the increase in private car use from 1987-2006 compared to the decline in the use of buses and minibuses, which are the primary means of public transit:

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Charles Correa, a pioneer in urban planning and human development architecture, recently said that cities today are not the problem, but the solution for development. They have “become places of hope where people are much freer.” Istanbul is the kind of city that has historically offered this freedom, but the transport problem threatens to undermine it significantly. The greater the mobility within a city, the more the individual citizen is able to harness the activity from all parts of the urban space to enhance their own productivity and quality of life. The citizen is also able to exercise their right to move, physically and socioeconomically, and to make informed choices about the space in which they live their lives. Not only does this contribute to overall economic growth, but it invigorates boroughs and neighbourhoods to become hubs in their own right. London is a case in point. Of Istanbul’s 39 boroughs, only a tiny handful can be called ‘hubs’ of anything.

Furthermore, the current transport situation speaks to the city’s economic inequality, and the obstinacy in managing it speaks to its political apathy. 80% of roadway space is dedicated to the 14% of the urban population that can afford a private car. The remaining 86% of Istanbulites must move within the 20% that is dedicated to public transport. (It is interesting to note here that the word dolmuş means ‘packed’ or ‘stuffed’ in Turkish, and that is exactly how it feels when you ride one). The government’s neglect of the transport system is in part a persistent legacy. In the 1960s, Turkey expressly forbade the diversion of financing toward public utilities in a bid to invest all available resources to industrialisation. It was an incredibly short-sighted and costly move.

To this day we have not seen a full policy reversal, in which the government might have a coherent and energised plan for Istanbul’s transport. A 2002 study pointed to an almost absurd fragmentation of responsibility, showing that 17 separate local and national authorities were partially responsible for transportation in Istanbul. Haluk Gerçek, professor of civil engineering at Istanbul Technical University, has written that “urban transport has long been formed by a road-based policy which lacks an overall financial strategy. Instead, major transport projects are developed and funded on an ad hoc basis. This trend to accommodate the increasing number of automobiles through a road network while extending an insufficient rail transit network has put pressure on the financial resources of the city.” Altogether this haphazard system was the means through which the municipal government spent $10 billion on transport projects between 2001 and 2007. What is even more worrying is that the government was, until recently, prepared to spend twice this amount on constructing Kartal Pendik, a garish business district shelved for its poor planning and unfeasibility.

A world-class transit system might have been a better, more prestige-earning return on a $20 billion investment than Kartal Pendik.

A world-class transit system might be a better, more prestige-earning return on a $20 billion investment than Kartal Pendik.

With the problem becoming unbearable, and with Istanbul putting forward an ambitious bid to host the Olympics, officials are only just waking up. In 2011, GIZ released a detailed report, Sustainable Urban Mobility, with recommendations for improvement, and this year construction on a third bridge across the Bosphorus will begin. Even so, the city is not mobilising enough brainpower towards cheaper and more innovative solutions. This is probably because, as Gerçek has noted, the political cycle encourages short-term thinking and quicker ‘prestige projects’ (e.g. the government recently announced a plan for a third airport). That kind of behaviour is a disservice to a city that has always been conscious of history and legacy.

The 30-page GIZ report offers very comprehensive, albeit incremental, solutions to Istanbul’s transport troubles, and it is well worth a read. But in today’s world of data-driven urban governance and mobile technology, I feel like one of the easiest and most cost-effective solutions that can be achieved in one political cycle might be a revamp of the dolmuş system. The dolmuş should by no means be allowed to entrench itself as a permanent feature of the city, if only because of Istanbul should endeavour to drastically reduce reliance on any automotive transport at all one day. Nonetheless, the minibuses and dolmuş together service 40% of motorised journies, which is concerning given how informal and backward they are. Dolmuş passenger capacities, vehicle maintenance standards, routes, schedules, and journey times are never certain. The government should not only regulate the system more, but should endeavour to gradually replace the entire dolmuş network with a formal equivalent. Maps and apps can be developed to transparently display the network to potential passengers and give Istanbul’s 7.5 million annual tourists an alternative to taxis.

You might say that it is impossible to organise and map the metropolitan Hydra that is the dolmuş network. But if Phanindra Sama, the founder of redBus.in, could map all of India’s informal bus routes from his apartment in Bangalore on weekends, then surely there is a team of Turkish civil servants that might be up to the task. It turns out one private firm, Global Site Plans, has already put out a call for a Dolmuş and Minibus Map Development Assistant. Let’s just hope someone answers before long.


Cartoonist Zihni Sinir’s proposed changes to the structure of the dolmuş


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