In my last piece, I looked at a system that uses just one tool: buses, buses, buses. Let’s take a look at a system that does the opposite.
Istanbul is an ancient city, built and rebuilt on Greek and Roman ruins. It is geographically constrained, and has an unfortunate highway running through it that connects Asia to Europe. But despite these constraints they’ve built a wonderfully functional transit system.
Let’s take a trip there. You can come in by inter-city bus (remind me some day to tell you about these), by international train, by inter-city “metro” (heavy rail, run as a subway in the city), or airplane. Since we’re coming from Seattle let’s start from Ataturk International Airport. We hop on the light rail or “half metro” that takes us downtown on a path that’s either grade-separated or running in its own right of way. From there we transfer to the “tram” or streetcar, that runs in its own right-of-way (though this right-of-way is shared with taxis during non-peak hours). We hop on and off this very frequent tram, visiting the sites of the old town. Then we transfer at an underground pedestrian walkway, complete with retail shops (including a few gun shops?!), to an underground funicular. This takes us up to a pedestrian-only part of town, with a tiny little streetcar that runs slow and is easy to hop on and off.
Let’s break this into mode. At the cross-country scale you take airplanes, heavy rail, or buses. These have few stops and are high-speed travel over long distances. At the inter-urban scale you take buses, metro rail, or light rail. These still have high speeds, but stop more frequently. At the city scale you take light rail, streetcars, or buses. These stop frequently, and are traffic separated. At the neighborhood scale you take funiculars up and down hills, and historic streetcars. These make what would be a long walk into a quick ride. Pedestrian subways act as short cuts under traffic or train lines and connect stations together. Then of course there are geography-bridging vehicles like gondolas and ferries that skip over water and make a long trip into a short one.
A typical trip can involve many transfers. But because the city and neighborhood scale transit are frequent, that’s not a problem. Istanbul uses almost every tool in their transit toolbox, and uses the right tool for the right job.
Can Seattle learn from Istanbul? We have all of the same constraints – a built-up city, interesting geography, and a highway or two running through our city. When Istanbul built their streetcar they unapologetically took one of the two car lanes in each direction of a very important road. They couldn’t go under – there’s a Roman cistern underground, in beautiful condition, made with scrap pieces of Greek statues. But they made it work. Of course, they’ve had longer to work out their issues than we have – the Tunel funicular we rode in the paragraphs above was built in 1875.