Istanbul Today
Urban Crossroads #90

Top: Modern Art Gallery building in Santral Istanbul, Turkey (source: Wikipedia); bottom: Istanbul's dedicated bus line (source:

Top: Modern Art Gallery building in Santral Istanbul, Turkey (source: Wikipedia); bottom: Istanbul's dedicated bus line (source:

Istanbul is one of the great cities of the world. Its rich heritage spans the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman eras. Its Roman remains feature the city aqueducts and the Hippodrome of Constantinople. The Byzantine period is most notably represented by the sixth-century Church of Hagia Sophia, a masterpiece of world architecture. The city is most identified, however, with its Ottoman heritage, which dates back to its conquest by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II in 1453. This rich heritage includes a breathtaking range of monuments such as the imperial Topkapi Palace, which Mehmet II begun, but was greatly expanded by his successors over the following centuries; the majestic mid-sixteenth-century Suleimaniye mosque, commissioned by Sultan Suleiman and designed by the great Ottoman architect Sinan; and the Westernized mid-nineteenth-century Classical revival Dolmabahce Palace, which supplanted the Topkapi as the official residence of the Ottoman Sultans during the Ottoman state’s last few decades. Moreover, Istanbul’s unique location along water bodies and passageways including the Bosphorus, Halic, and Sea of Marmara provides many parts of the city with spectacular settings and views.

The city has had its ups and downs over the course of its long history, primarily following the fortunes of the empires of which it was the capital. Today, it is Turkey’s largest city, as well as its economic and cultural center, but not its political capital (a position occupied by Ankara). The major challenges that contemporary Istanbul faces are no longer connected to the fortunes of empire building, but more to accommodating the dramatic increase in population and physical size it has undergone over the past half a century. While it only had about one million inhabitants at the middle of the twentieth century, its population today has surpassed the twelve-million mark. Its overwhelming size is evident to anyone navigating the city’s roads, many of which are overwhelmed by traffic and often come to a complete standstill.

None of these challenges, however, have managed to compromise Istanbul’s greatness and its march forward, and the city in fact is undergoing a major cultural and economic resurgence. I visited Istanbul earlier this year, after an absence of a decade and a half. Although traffic along its streets remains highly congested and what was once a highly affordable city for tourists has become too expensive, Istanbul struck me as a vibrant metropolis that is confidently facing the future, and a truly cosmopolitan center with high-quality modern architecture, a rich cultural life, and impressive economic vibrancy.

During this visit, I did not get the chance to visit any of the city’s great historical monuments, but instead experienced a few of its contemporary works of architecture. I participated in a conference that took place in Santral Istanbul, a stunning arts and culture complex located along the upper edge of the Golden Horn, in the city’s Eyup district. The complex is located on the site of Istanbul’s first electricity generation station, which dates to the early-twentieth century. Through a combination of conserving existing structures and adding new ones, the complex has been adapted to feature a modern art gallery, an energy museum, a theater, concert halls, restaurants, and a public library. All are part of the Silahtaraga campus of Istanbul Bilgi University, one of Turkey’s numerous relatively recent private non-profit “endowment universities.” A good number of these universities have been established by prominent members of Turkey’s business community.

But let us return to the subject of moving through Istanbul. No city can offer a decent quality of urban living for its residents unless they are able to move through it with relative ease, and to achieve this, a good-quality public transportation system is essential. Although Istanbul’s streets are overflowing with traffic that often comes to a complete standstill, serious efforts in fact are being made to address the state of its urban transportation.

My first experience with public transportation in Istanbul took place back in the 1980s, when as a tourist on a student budget I decided to use the city’s bus system to move around. In spite of a very limited knowledge of the Turkish language, I found the instructions on using the bus network easy to follow, and although the buses were very crowded, they nonetheless provided an easy-to-use, efficient, reliable, and affordable mode of transportation.

Even the buses, however, are caught in the city’s suffocating traffic. The Istanbul municipality therefore has been developing an integrated public transportation system that incorporates a variety of transportation modes instead of exclusively relying on traditional bus fleets that share the city streets with other vehicles. These modes include a subway line, tramlines, light rail, suburban rail, and a dedicated bus lane, all of which move in corridors separated from the city’s road system and aim at alleviating traffic pressure off it.

I got a first-hand taste of these solutions during my last visit to Istanbul. On one occasion, I was with a group of visitors from outside the city in a taxi on our way to meet local colleagues at a restaurant. We soon found ourselves stuck in unmoving traffic. We phoned the people we were to meet, and their advice was that since we were located close to the city’s subway line, it would be best to walk to the nearby subway station, take the subway, and then walk to the restaurant. The subway trip and accompanying walks only took only about twenty minutes. In spite of the large number of people using the subway, it was a pleasure to ride: the stations and subway cars were bright and clean, nobody pushed or shoved, and the directions were totally clear, even for someone who does not know Turkish.

The subway system was inaugurated in 2000 and still only consists of one line, thus providing limited access in the city, but expansion plans are underway. The other transportation modes that have been implemented in Istanbul (tramlines, light rail, suburban rail, and dedicated bus lane), however, already include networks that provide wider geographic access.

I did not get to use these other transportation modes, but did get to closely see one of them in action. The conference I was attending took place in one location of the city and featured an evening lecture in another location. The conference bus transporting the conference participants to the lecture ended up being stuck in traffic, and what should have been a fifteen-minute ride ended up taking about an hour and a half.

During much of the ride, the bus took a major highway that cut through a considerable part of Istanbul. The city’s dedicated bus route runs along a segment of this highway, occupying its two central lanes, with each lane accommodating traffic in one direction. This dedicated bus route extends about thirty kilometers, with numerous bus stops along the way from which passengers would be able to link to local bus lines.

While we were barely moving towards our destination, buses using the dedicated bus lane were zooming by at regular intervals. It generally is common for bus passengers to view those using automobiles with envy. While they ride in crowded buses navigating heavy traffic, following preset routes, and making frequent stops, those in private automobiles move in the comfort of their own private space, taking the route that is most suitable for them. In this case, however, the situation was reversed. As we were stuck in traffic, we were the ones who could only look at the passengers in the buses zooming by us along the dedicated bus lane with jealousy, knowing that they will reach their destinations long before us.

When this is the case, you know that a public transportation system is successful and that it better serves the transportation needs of city residents than the private automobile. Although only inaugurated in 2007, over half a million people use Istanbul’s dedicated bus route every day. Its length already has been extended by about 50%, and plans for expanding its network to access additional parts of the city are well underway.

All in all, the development of Istanbul’s public transportation network is impressive. As with many other cities in the region, Istanbul’s public transportation system failed to grow and evolve over the past thirty years to accommodate the city’s rapidly rising population and expanding geographic area, thus giving way for the private automobile as the dominant mode of transportation in the city. Considering that the automobile often only has one person – the driver – using it, the reliance on it eventually leads to extensive traffic congestion resulting from too many vehicles transporting relatively few people. Serious efforts, however, have been made in Istanbul over the past decade and a half to address this problem and to develop an efficient public transportation network that encourages commuters to switch from the private automobile to public transportation, thus taking a considerable number of vehicles off the road. It is an uphill effort that has and will face numerous technical and logistical challenges, but impressive concrete results are being achieved, and Istanbul is emerging as a primary role model in the region for its public transportation solutions.

Mohammad al-Asad

March 05, 2009