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Setting the wheels in motion

Can cyclists carve out space for themselves on Istanbul’s mean streets – and improve the commuting experience for millions in the meantime?


February, 2013

by: Mariah Pittman

Istanbul’s traffic jams are legendary; the longest one on record clocked in at 72 hours last year on the Atatürk Bridge. The daily commute can easily suck up hours of time, its toll visible on the glum faces of passengers staring blankly out the windows of vehicles crawling along during rush hour.


Zipping past all those packed minibuses on a bicycle seems like the perfect solution, but in fact Istanbul’s traffic woes have in some ways made it even harder to be a cyclist in the city.


Stressed drivers, unwilling to give up precious road space to cyclists, raised enough of a stink about the bicycle lane on Bağdat Caddesi that the municipality removed it in December 2012, just one month after it had been installed. Since then, an independent cyclist movement has been meeting every Sunday afternoon at Göztepe Park under the name ‘Bisiklet Yoluna Sahip Çık!’ (‘Claim Ownership of the Bicycle Lanes!’) to raise awareness about the lane’s closure and to ride in solidarity on Bağdat Caddesi, one of the Asian side’s busiest thoroughfares.


This lack of driver understanding stems from a larger problem: a weak cycling culture in Istanbul. Bicycles are only common on the Princes’ Islands during summer weekends or along the coastal path near hip Moda and well-to-do Bostancı on the Asian side. ‘Bicycles are usually seen as the vehicle of the poor or the hobby of the rich. We need to change this understanding,’ says Murat Suyabatmaz, the president of the Turkey Cyclists Association.


So how do bicycles become part of the daily routines of ordinary citizens?


A new project, titled BikeLab Istanbul, seeks to change public perceptions of the bicycle and set the wheels in motion to create a sustainable transport system in Istanbul. ‘Cycling is a transportation mode. It is not just recreational,’ says Arzu Tekir, the director of EMBARQ Türkiye – Sustainable Transport Association, an organisation partnering with Dutch design firm Yard 9 on the BikeLab project.


In December, the arts and research centre SALT Galata hosted the project’s first phase: the BikeLab Istanbul Workshop. With the support of the Dutch Consulate, the workshop brought together more than 60 government agencies, NGOs and other stakeholders. Turkish and Dutch cycling experts shared their knowledge, and the discussion tackled such topics as safe cycling, integrating bicycles into the public transport network and ways of developing cycling culture in Istanbul. A report prepared by EMBARQ Türkiye with input from workshop participants will be passed on to local authorities.


The Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality is taking steps of its own, adding 36 km of cycling lanes in 2012 as part of its long-term target to create just over 1,000 km of bicycle lanes by 2023. A local municipality has also installed bright yellow bicycle parking racks on bustling İstiklal Caddesi – but like the bike lanes in Turkey’s largest city, they are often empty.


The second phase of BikeLab Istanbul hopes to address that by using road-safety audits to develop a pilot ‘safe cycling lane’ and then analysing and improving the project with feedback from riders, so as to create bicycle infrastructure that Istanbul’s residents will actually use.


‘The workshop was the first step. The media attention and the fruitful discussions give us hope and show we are on the right path,’ says Tekir. ‘We need a holistic approach and integrated transportation.’


Her recommendations focus on creating more hubs that link to a variety of transport options, like Kabataş on the European side, where ferries, buses, the tramway and funicular already meet. Bicycles could be used as a feeder mode to these hubs and to individual metro stations through the installation of well-situated bicycle parking racks, lanes and bike-sharing systems – all free for users. Given Istanbul’s notorious commuting distances – in its worst hours, the total length of traffic jams in the city can stretch twice the distance between Istanbul and İzmir, or 1,100 km – this could benefit many residents. Cycling increases an individual’s radius of movement by three to four times when compared with walking, thus cutting down on travel time and the need for a car.


But the road ahead is sure to be a bumpy one, with its fair share of potholes – both literal and figurative – to manoeuver before the vision of a sustainable transport system that matches the city, with its many faces and varied spaces, can be achieved.  To further address safety issues, public-awareness campaigns need to begin in schools, teaching children to wear helmets and cycle smartly. And there is strength in numbers. Increasing the cyclist presence on the streets results in a decreased risk for individual cyclists, according to a study by the Netherlands-based NGO Interface for Cycling Expertise.


But while Istanbul can learn from international expertise, perhaps the solution to its transport woes lies not merely in the logical planning found in famously bike-friendly cities like Amsterdam.


Making space for cyclists on Istanbul’s narrow roads should start with bicycle promotion; this could begin by showing more actors using bicycles on a popular Turkish dizi, or TV series. It could also include a ‘Bicycle-only Bayram’, a special day when some roads would be closed off to cars but open to cyclists, an idea Tekir supports. Or what about a high-speed race up and down Istanbul’s seven hills – a ‘Tour de Istanbul’? The national love of adrenaline normally reserved for football matches and their high-intensity celebrations could be transferred to two-wheeled chases through the historic peninsula, buzzing Beyoğlu and sophisticated Bebek.


In short, making a bike-friendly Istanbul a reality might require some moves as unconventional as this chaotic city itself.


Learn more about EMBARQ Türkiye’s projects at www.embarqturkiye.org/en and www.facebook.com/embarqturkiye or follow them on Twitter @embarqturkiye.The website for the Turkey Cyclists’ Association is www.bisikletliler.org (Turkish-language website). Check out ‘Bisiklet Yoluna Sahip Çık!’ each Sunday at 14.00 at Göztepe Park.


Safety first

Bike safety is important in any big city, all the more so in one like Istanbul where drivers aren’t used to sharing the road. EMBARQ’s Arzu Tekir offers her tips:


Be prepared ‘Wear a helmet! Check the tires and the gears before you ride, and since visibility is vital, use bike lights and be always careful on bumpy and broken roads. I would also use side roads instead of main arteries.’


Cycle smart Use appropriate hand signals, consult a map to determine the best streets for riding before setting out, follow Istanbul’s traffic laws (but act defensively when drivers don’t obey the rules) and wear reflective clothing.


Know when to quit Tekir says that if she feels the route she is on is unsafe, she takes her folding bike on the bus, taxi or tram for the rest of the journey.


Hit the road!

Head to the Asian side to try out the peaceful coastal biking and walking path that stretches from Kadıköy to Pendik or explore the trails on the Princes’ Islands for a relaxing ride.


More interested in cycling to commute than a Sunday jaunt? Search ‘Istanbul’  at www.mapmyride.com/routes to find details and comments on routes road-tested by Istanbul cyclists.


Karaköy-based design firm Superpool has also created an ‘Istanbul Bike Map’ that can be viewed on their website. The map highlights which city streets are ideal for cycling by showing how steep they are and how they connect to public transport. It also includes an illustration of bicycle traffic hand signals and other safety tips in Turkish.


Top gear

Bike shops can be found on both sides of the city, though many are clustered around Bağdat Caddesi because of the nearby seaside path. Just around the corner from the Göztepe Paclirk meeting point for the ‘Bisiklet Yoluna Sahip Çık!’ Sunday rides is Kaçkar Bisiklet, which has an excellent selection of bike parts, helmets and bicycles for purchase, and expects to be renting bikes by May. Tütüncu Mehmet Efendi Caddesi, Çam Apartmanı 19, Göztepe (0216) 385 82 20 53/www.kackarbisiklet.com.


Over on the European side, Arzu Tekir sings the praises of Delta Bisiklet, where she bought her Strida portable, folding bicycle: ‘The guys at Delta Bisiklet in Ortaköy were great and resourceful. I spent an hour and a half in the shop – asking endless questions and doing test drives. I would highly recommend this shop.’ (Delta Bisiklet also has shops in Levent, Eminönü and Kızıltoprak.) Dereboyu Caddesi 92/B, Ortaköy, Beşiktaş (0212) 236 27 08/www.deltabisiklet.com.


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