Istanbul, Matt Gangemi

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.

Gun store (?!) in an underground pedestrian corridor between stations, Matt Gangemi

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.

Heritage Tram in Beyoğlu, Wikipedia

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.

Rapid transit Map, WikiTravel

46 Replies to “The Right Tool for the Job: Istanbul”

  1. They may have been working on the problem longer, but they also did not rip out whatever rail transit they once had.

    1. I actually don’t think that’s true. Isn’t the Taksim-Tünel trolley a vestige of some older, defunct streetcar system that met a similar demise to ours?

      Aside from the Tünel funicular subway, I’m pretty sure most of what you see on that map is new as of the last couple decades.

      1. The streetcar that shares a lane with taxis is very modern, and they clearly converted it from a car lane.

      2. The T3 and T5 are described as Historic Tramways, so they clearly did not rip out all the old lines. Matt descibed the underground funicular as dating from the 19th century so that’s another example. We started from zero.

      3. (psst – look down. that’s a 100 year old train tunnel the runs under downtown Seattle)

      4. AW, neither of those trams are more than 1/2 mile long. If they are indeed vestiges of an extensive former streetcar network, then that suggests that they DID in fact rip at essentially all their old lines.

        Tünel : Seattle Monorail
        Taksim tram : Benson waterfront tram

        They started from scratch as much as we did.

      5. It depends on what they did. Did they “rip out” the streetcar network to renovate it and make it better, or was there an intervening period of several decades with only roads and buses?

      6. I checked Wikipedia, and it’s the latter.

        The original trams were ALL ripped out by the 1960s, on both sides of the Bosphorus.

        Everything they have now, INCLUDING the “nostalgic” trams, is 1989 or later!

      7. They may have started in 1989 with the new infrastructure, but what they have besides density that we lack is the culture of taking transit rather than driving. I suspect that when they ripped their old rails out they didn’t do so because some large car manufacturer bought them and closed the transit lines. They probably just converted rail to buses as gas was cheaper than electricity at some point and buses are more flexible. But they probably still had the same ridership numbers…. I assume they have 75%+ transit ridership city-wide while we have around 30%, right?

      8. Fair enough, Anton.

        It’s worth noting that Turkey has in certain ways been a very Western culture since Atatürk, with the attendant interest in automobile culture. Though there’s no doubt about population density having always favored foot-accessed modes of transit such as buses and ferries.

        I assume they have 75%+ transit ridership city-wide while we have around 30%, right?

        I presume you know the axiom about assuming. Perhaps they do only have 30% transit share; it would still put our numbers to shame.

        Remember that Seattle’s most “impressive” transit statistic (40% and cited ad nauseam) only applies to jobs located in Seattle’s CBD (whether employees come from the city or from elsewhere).

        But when you look at total trips, the percentages for even just the 600,000 residents of Seattle proper are pathetic: transit share is 19% for commute trips, and barely 9% for non-commute. Naturally, transit’s total trip-share barely registers outside the city.

  2. Great posting, Matt. Really envy you for getting to go see Istanbul. Would love to be able to compare notes with the drivers on those trains and buses.

    Agree completely about the lessons. Public transit, including buses, gets exponentially more efficient when everybody agrees to get other traffic out of its way. Transit-and-taxi lanes are something we could try any time, just to see if it works.

    We could also increase service many times over by agreeing that buses get express lanes both directions on both I-5 and I-90- with very little additional structure.

    After last summer’s overnight on Greyhound, would seriously suggest competition from a Turkish long-distance bus operator- for Greyhound’s own good. Really look forward to posting on service over there.

    In Seattle’s defense, a few minutes online research shows that Istanbul has a population of over 8 million, which is 18 percent of everybody in Turkey. When Seattle has 54 million people- somebody check my math- there will likely be both tax revenues and votes for improved transit.

    Also, Istanbul seems to be at least ten thousand years old. These things take time. Change Seattle’s name to “Istanbul bir sure”- Turkish for “Alki”, and maybe the ball will get rolling.

    That display case looks disconcertingly like a coin machine. What does the average Turkish transit passenger use “heat” like that for?

    Mark Dublin

    1. The bus drivers there are spoiled. Even urban buses have a seperate attendant for collecting money and giving directions. Labor rates are probably lower there than here, but this is far from a third world country – half of Istanbul is in Europe.

      I have a feeling those were BB guns, sold there for shock value. But who knows.

  3. It makes me sad how so many Americans still believe we are tops for infrastructure. I recently had the opportunity to visit Seoul ROK with my wife. It was awesome. It was cleaner, safer, more modern and had better infrastructure then any American city. However if I tell this to people about 70% of them laugh out of disbelief. I would get comments like “wow I didn’t know they watched tv there” “did your wife have to wash her clothes in the river” “wow that looks really clean for such a poor country”. I actually think this is part of our problem. We are in denial about how bad our infrastructure actually is. A lot of the Midwest thinks Canada is like a giant waste land and that it’s biggest cities are like miniature Fargos. I think if more Americans knew more about the world outside of America they would be more open or maybe even become demanding of change. Also I think a lot of Americans want health care, mass transit and well maintained highways without paying the taxes it would require to get all of these things.

    1. +1 It’s hard to see the best of what the world has to offer and not say “I want some of that.”

      We live in a brief bubble of opportunity where much of Americans can afford to travel the world if they really want to. I predict in a decade or two the price of fuel will skyrocket (whether we drill, baby, drill or not), and international flights will be too expensive for leisure travel.

      (oh, and I love Seoul subways)

      1. When I was in Korea with the Army in the early 90’s I liked the Seoul subway system. Very easy to get around on and see some interesting parts of the city. I could even get from my base north of the city down into the city fairly easily.

      2. “High fuel costs”

        It’s a solved problem. At $100 barrel, instead of burning coal, extract the thorium salts, use it to run a nuclear power plant, convert the rest of the coal into oil. (Or extract C02 from the atmosphere). We have enough coal to do this for the next 200 or more years.

        The unsolved problem is the high debt. Even a country which prints it’s own money and pays its debts in that currency can run into trouble if it prints way more currency than there is GDP to back it up.

        BTW: Fixing the infustructure would reduce the debt in the long run because instead of everyone buying a car (or two) we could share the costs via mass transit. And thanks for yet another example of a city that is doing it better than we are. One can only hope our city planners will eventually recognize that a city with good connections will be richer than it’s neighbors without.

      3. We’re heading far off topic, but coal is an enemy to mankind. The CO2 involved in burning the stuff is huge, and carbon sequestration isn’t much more than a dream. Any smart plan of the future has to assume we find a way to slow down our coal use, not increase it.

      4. I haven’t seen any carbon sequestration plans that really look viable. As for limiting coal use I think that’s likely just as much of a dream if by “we” you mean humans. China is ramping up coal use and since they own us we’ll be sending large quantities of it their way; likely through Bellingham and Vancouver. About the best we could hope for is a treaty that results in us, as in US, sending them a “value added” product which preprocesses the coal for cleaner burning.

      5. OOPS, I can’t even seem to spell my own name. Maybe I should change it to Benrie and go by Ben :=

    2. Seoul is really clean compared to American cities. But let’s see if you are part of the problem, or part of the solution. Did you buy carbon offsets for your flight to Korea?

      1. Miles,

        An amazingly short-sighted attempt to avoid an unpleasant reality.

        The fact is, the meat you likely eat in a year would significantly outproduce GHG’s versus Matt’s trip to Seoul. Especially if it’s beef.

      2. Anandakos,

        Pretty sure Miles was talking to Sam, not Matt. I continue to wish that STB would allow arbitrarily deep threading, just skipping the indentation when you have a long chain without branching.

      3. @Aleks, Anandakos

        Yes, I was replying to Sam (whose comment was an extremely clumsy attempt to change the subject).

    3. These great cities outside America are much more dense than Seattle and almost any American city typically, and often contain their suburbs (as Istanbul does) in one Municipality. (In Istanbul it is the Istanbul Buyksehir Beledyesi-Metropolitan municipality of Istanbul) I believe there are ~50-some advisory districts under the municipality, but basically its all under one umbrella municipality. And it is tons denser than most of America. I’ve been there 4 times, and its just paradise. (especially in the summer) Though, my friends who come visit me in Seattle tend to think Seattle is paradise in its own way too. When you’re looking at the 3rd(as of last list I saw) largest municipality on earth, they’re obviously going to be doing something different to get the city running as well as they do. I’d recommend that everyone visit the city some time, its so steeped in history, yet plowing forward with the modern age at the speed of light.

      1. Yes a lot of these cities around the world are much denser then Seattle. Seoul is about 6 times denser actually. However there are European cities of smaller size and similar density that still have much better transit. I know things are improving. Seattles much better now then when I moved here in 2003.

      2. Do those cities have the extensive suburbs to contend with that Seattle does when trying to fight for funding?

    4. Many Americans have had similar experiences and share your views and want our nation to keep pace.
      However, we also have a large contingent of Americans who have only gone overseas to war zones. The war zones where we send our people tend to have been at war long before we got there, and thus were generally devastated by the time Americans saw them. Europe in WW1 and 2 had been at war several years before we landed. Korea, Vietnam, Iraq (both times) and Afghanistan had been at war for decades before we got there. Our peacekeeping troops arrived in Bosnia and Kosovo after several years of destruction. Many people get sent to these places and that’s the only time they ever leave America. During peacetime at least more troops got rotations in ROK, Germany and Japan, but we’ve reduced our presence in some of those more stable places.
      The other main experience for many Americans is in Mexico/Caribbean (nearby, cheap, less developed places). I think that’s why many of us have a pretty screwed up view of what the rest of the world is like – especially in relation to us. People who have traveled to Europe, Japan, China, and major industrial cities rather than tourist towns, tend to have a better sense of the differences and potential, at least in my experience.
      Thanks for sharing this Matt!

      1. Now that major cities Mexico and Brazil are starting to look comparably developed to parts of the US (they’ve been improving, we’ve been getting worse), I wonder if that will wake some people up.

  4. No we didn’t. To be honest that’s the first time I’ve heard of carbon offsets. I’m not an environmentalist, but I do care more then the average Joe. I support urbanism because to me it makes sense. Suburbia doesn’t. Urbanism benefits the economy, safety, environment and over all quality of life of my city. Isn’t Sam one of the trolls or am I wrong?

  5. For a long time, I’ve thought that this country’s real problem relating to the world is that we still haven’t gotten used to the fact that the rest of the world got over World War II forty years ago.

    Let alone developed any idea what to do about it. But- that’s one advantage of having a new generation coming of age who wouldn’t know which world war came first if they weren’t numbered. And whose quality of life, not to mention their lives, will depend on figuring out a new approach.

    After talking with a young seafaring woman aboard a sloop at Center for Wooden Boats, checked online- sails really are now being hooked to cargo ships. Am truly looking forward to international passenger travel with a lower carbon footprint.

    And also travel conditions fit for mammals. Like the old shantey says:

    “Tommy’s gone to Montreal,
    Away, Hilo ,
    On a packet ship with skysails tall,
    Tommy’s gone to Hilo!”

    Look up “Skysails.” Awesome!

    Mark Dublin

  6. I just came across these videos, for a good flavor of Istanbul’s trams. Notice at 2:25 in the first one of parents with a stroller crossing the street. #7 is the historic streetcar at the pedestrian area I describe above – notice at 2:40 how well it works in a pedestrian environment. For a similar but short view, check out #14.

    1. Double thanks, Matt. Excellent example for Seattle’s new Waterfront: take out the automobile traffic, and there’s plenty of room for both people and streetcars.

      Watching the footage closely, it’s also hard to picture a bus, even an electric one, fitting into that space so gracefully.

      I’m curious about accident statistics for the area depicted. But I notice that nobody is scattering in terror as the car goes by.

      Mark Dublin

      Mark Dublin

      1. Actually if I measured it right, we have room on the Seattle Waterfront for both 4 lanes of cars, and two lanes of street cars, and a bicycle cycle track, and a pedestrian sidewalk.

        The only people claiming that there isn’t room for a street car started from the premise that they didn’t want a street car on the waterfront, they wanted one on 1st Ave which has even less room. They figured the Fed’s wouldn’t pay for 1st ave with the waterfront line being so close, even though with that cliff between them, they don’t serve the same group of riders.

      2. Is that without cutting into the patches of wild vegetation in the plans? (I’m not sure if “gardens” is the right word for them.) I think these are important to improve the ecosystem.

  7. I should have commented on this early. I was in Istanbul twice over the last two years and while I agree that Istanbul is a fantastic city for it’s topography, history, current culture, and even transit system, I think there are two elements of the system that you’re omitting: Buses and Ferries.

    Ferries run between the European and Asian side of the city, cost the same as any other mode of transportation (slightly more for long distance), and some local boats run every 10-15 minutes. One Jeton or a tap of the Istanbul card (their ORCA) will get you to the other side of the water, which is far less touristy and lands a few blocks away from a very active local market. The ferries serve as a vital link between the two sides of the city. As with other parts of the system, this works both local and regional scales. A good map can be found here:

    The other thing is that buses still play a huge role in Istanbul, although they are far less accessible for visitors than the light rail or trams. The famous heritage streetcar that runs up to Taksim square has its last stop by the Taksim square bus station which bustles with activity. Although I took the light rail into the city (switching to the tram, then the funicular to get to where I was staying as well), once I arrived they actually recommended that next time I come I should take the bus because it’s faster than rail from the airport when traffic is low (The tram from one end to the other ends up crawling along at a fairly slow pace). During the peak hours buses are hot, packed full of locals, and stuck in traffic, but they also seem to serve more people and clearly serve a larger area of the city. Many sights outside of the main old town, such as Chora Church, are only accessible via bus or taxi. Their bus system is also a mix of public and private bus operators, although most accept the Istanbul Card. I’m not sure if they are contracted by the city to provide service (a la Stockholm’s SL transit system) or if the buses are free market with the option of accepting the card.

    Another fun fact is that the Istanbul Card is a recent switch. Today, it functions much like the ORCA card with the ability to attach either monthly passes or stored value. It also gives you the ability to transfer to other vehicles at half price (It’s 1.20TL for the first seat, then 0.60TL for the second, 0.55TL for the third, 0.50TL for the fourth and so on down to 0.40TL for the sixth within 2 hours of the original trip. Currently 1USD = 1.8TL). However, before that they used something that I believe is unique to transit: A smart “button” called the Akbil. It was a metal “iButton” that had to be pressed down in a small round indentation to pay for your fare and was held by a small plastic key fob (which came in multiple colors). Very unique. You can take a look at all the payment options (including the akbil) for the Istanbul transit systems here (Sorry for the crappy photo. I need to retake these.)

    1. Thanks Nicholas! I didn’t get a chance to take a ferry, and only took one or two city buses while I was there. This was before the Istanbul card, during the time of the iButtons (though that’s for locals, tourists would pay with cash). Do they still have a second employee on city buses who would take your money? Or did the Istanbul Card remove them?

      1. I don’t recall 100%. I feel like it depends on what bus you use. In addition to the big buses, there are minibuses (which are, I believe more technically shared fixed route cabs) that serve the city. These traffic the same bus stops, but people enter and leave the side door (which stays open while moving! Fun!). On these, I believe there is an attendant who deals with cash and then the driver due to the fact that no one can enter from the front. On regular buses, I believe that the custom is to load front and exit rear, meaning everyone passes the driver and pays with no attendant in the back.

        However, the entire system is full of people who have are not all that productive. For example, each tram station has two platforms on either side of the track that are technically restricted access. Like so:


        The X is a turnstile on either side that keep people out from the platform (and the ## is the track). But, obviously, people could just walk the 10 feet or so on the track and bypass the need to pay. So, there are security guards, perhaps 2 per station, at virtually every station. It’s not very efficient, but it’s how they want to do it. :)

      2. Hmm.. the code block didn’t work all that well. Try #2:

        ############################### TRAM

      3. Even more unsuccessful! I accidentally commented out the second line when trying to show direction of travel. 9.9

        ############################### {-- TRAM
        ############################### --} TRAM

  8. I hate to be contrary, but I do not think that Istanbul’s mish-mash of competing systems which do not seamlessly integrate with each other is the model for Seattle. The trams, light rail, metro, and various funiculars all require separate payment, and the coverage of the city is generally weak. The Bosporus tunnel will help to improve mobility, but getting through town will still require multiple transfers to different systems.

    1. Embrace the transfer. One-seat-ride systems are terribly inefficient, and result in inflexible commuter-only service. If you want to get from 6th Ave W and Galer on Queen Anne to downtown during rush hour, a one-seat-ride works fine. But just try to get to just about anywhere else in the city, especially outside of work hours.

      I think I made a pretty strong case for Istanbul’s systems working together pretty seamlessly. I agree that fare integration is needed, but it sounds like they’ve solved that.

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