Continuing with our street-level observations on Turkish life, I’d like to devote some space to a topic that’s been an extremely important aspect of my life over the past fifteen years: Istanbul’s public transportation.
When I moved to Istanbul in 1999, there was no subway. Zero. For those who have spent time in Istanbul recently and used the constantly expanding public rail transport system that may come as a bit of a surprise. It’s now very difficult to imagine getting around in Istanbul without the subway rail systems.
In 1999, the only rail transport systems in İstanbul were the light rail line, which at that time stretched only from Yeni Bosna to Eminönü, and the old train line which ran from Sirkeci to İstanbul’s western suburbs, which was actually the eastern end of the Orient Express line. On the Anatolian side of İstanbul again was the old train line heading towards the interior (I’m ignoring the short “romantic” trams on Istiklal Street and in Moda). The passenger cars on the light rail line were new, but the cars on the old rail lines were dilapidated and barely serviceable. This was the situation despite the fact that the short underground Tünel route, which is actually a funicular (cable car) running from Karaköy up to Beyoğlu, was the second underground rail transport system constructed anywhere in the world (opened in 1875).
The result was that, to get most anywhere in Istanbul, one had to get on the public buses. And for the public buses at that time there were only two options: the ancient red-and-white Hungarian-made Ikarus buses and the aqua blue buses (technically privately-operated) that were newer. The Ikarus buses often had wooden seats, no air conditioning, and literally no suspension. But people who have experienced İstanbul only in the past five or six years probably have never seen one of the red-and-white buses because, starting in 2004, new buses (first, the green buses, then later yellow and lavender) were steadily streamed into İstanbul’s bus fleets; the older red-and-white buses were gradually moved to lines serving distant suburbs, and then phased out altogether. The old aqua buses can still be found on routes like the 500T line, the longest in İstanbul, and they still don’t have air conditioning.
The reality at that time meant that both options were sheer torture: Istanbul’s traffic, if one can imagine, was much worse for public transport users, i.e. the working classes and much of the middle classes. The reasons were the lack of rail options, the resulting extreme crowding on the buses, and gridlock on the main urban arteries, especially the E-5 freeway.
Fifteen years ago, one would generally budget two hours to get from Mecidiyeköy to Atatürk airport by the E-5, and then pray for no accidents on the route. And the expectation from the trip would be exhaustion from standing in extremely crowded buses for the duration because getting a seat was rare.
The additional rail options have greatly improved that situation over the past fifteen years, but the single greatest improvement was the Metrobüs. I’ll explain why in the next installment.