Cycling the streets of İstanbul

Lately I’ve been back on my bicycle here in İstanbul. I really enjoy cycling in general, and I’ve come to really enjoy cycling here in İstanbul more than I did in Chicago, despite there not being nearly as “nice” of places to cycle. Now I put nice in quotations – that is because technically, Chicago’s waterfront, and it’s bike lane system is pretty extensive, however, with the exception of the waterfront (99.9% of the time anyways), the bike lanes offered no actual protection from cars, were frequently blocked by them, and simply created a gap in expectations. Cars expected me to unconditionally stay in the bike lane, I expected cars to stay out of the bike lane, and no one lived up to each others’ expectations, and everyone was frustrated. Now it’s probably true that cycling in İstanbul isn’t for the feint of heart, however I’d argue that cycling in Chicago is worse, despite all the infrastructure – though the perception of İstanbul by most residents is far worse than Chicago. For my first two years in İstanbul, I was both afraid to buy a bike, and didn’t feel financially comfortable buying one – but more that I was afraid to ride a bike in traffic here. Traffic in the megacity is notoriously seemingly “lawless”, however, it is not without rules.

The day I bought my bike, I had no practical way to transport it home aside from simply riding the bike to my house, 19km away by the route I took. So cold Turkey (hahaha) I got on my bike and rode 19km almost entirely on major arteries.

The first day in traffic I rode more American style, holding my lane, staying in traffic when there was traffic, etc. Which worked really well, drivers seemed to respect me, I respected them, and we all got along surprisingly well. I knew the driving style here in İstanbul is crazy – but calculated for the most part. Drivers are much more attentive than I am used to, and despite Turks’ reputation for going into instant rages (and of course cooling off just as fast, which is the stranger part), There was 0 road rage directed at me. People had no issue with me taking up space on the road. In Chicago I had gotten used to people passing way unnecessarily close, throwing things out of their cars at me, trying to run me off the road by driving towards me, yelling at me, etc. None of that ever happens here in İstanbul. Occasionally someone is careless, or just overly aggressive and cuts me short to take a turn because they’re impatient, however I do not experience road rage directed at me in any way here, and the carelessness is less than it was in Chicago (I experienced an unbelievable amount of carelessness there, even on busy bike lanes where people should always always expect bicycles!)

To this day I peacefully ride back and forth from place to place. I no longer bike American style though, my biking style fits the driving style here, if there’s space, I take it. It works really well, I’m predictable, and I get places really fast. I stay as far to the right as is reasonably possible at all times and people do not pass too close 99.9% of the time. If there is space available at all to give me space, they give me space, unlike their American counterparts, who liked buzzing me to make a point that I “shouldn’t be on the road” – despite it being illegal to bike on the sidewalks in Chicago. In Chicago I took the middle of the lane almost always for my own safety, when you take a full lane, people do not try to buzz your elbow, in Turkey/Istanbul, that just doesn’t happen. People always give as much space as they can (which at times isn’t much, but at that point everyone is usually going slower, and it’s an understandable fact of a lack of roadway space, not some malicious intent). When people pass too close in İstanbul, they always slow down when doing so, so as to be as careful as they can. For such an aggressive driving culture, my ability to fit into the roads with so few problems has amazed me. I was initially terrified to try biking here, and to my great surprise and pleasure, I find it much easier and more comfortable biking here.

On another note – to my surprise, I found that biking in Amsterdam was exactly like İstanbul. the bikers there are more aggressive than the drivers in İstanbul, so when I took to the streets on a bike on a short vacation there a year ago, I felt right at home. It seems our ridiculous driving style more or less works for most people. (This is Bourne out in our traffic death statistics – where İstanbul looses 1-2/100K per year to traffic accidents, half to 1/4 of what Seattle or Chicago lose in a year (my hometown, and my university city – both around 5.5/100K deaths/yr).

There are many things I wish the city would do however to improve biking and walking. Below is a start (far from complete) of an idea for a bike lane and bike/pedestrian hill-easing plan I came up with for the city, noting elevation in m, blue being streets that would be nice to have separated cycling facilities, pink being assisted hillclimbs (escalators/elevators/funicular trains, for pedestrians and cyclists), red being often, very high up pedestrian bridges, with elevators and/or escalators/ to the valley floors they cross, green being tunnels, and yellow being existing funicular trains/cable cars that climb hills, or will be completed soon.

My proposed beginning of a pedestrian and cycling access plan

My second issue with riding a bike here was the hills. In Chicago the biggest hill I encountered on my bike was about 7m tall overpasses to cross freeways or other infrastructure. There were no significant elevation changes. In İstanbul on the other hand, it is not abnormal for me to have to climb 120m on my bike to get places, and that’s just not fun. It took me a year and a few beers to be able to climb Barbaros Boulevard.

Barbaros is 2.28 km long, and rises 120 meters. This is the most practical route from sea level to Mecidiyeköy, from any direction. It’s slope is not tremendously steep, however it is not easy. It requires me going into the lowest gear on my bike, and just pushing through a lot of pain to make it to the top. However, conquering that hill is quite the feeling. You tell anyone in İstanbul you climbed Barbaros on a bike and the looks you get – worth the pain 🙂 Also, it’s nice to be able to bike all the way wherever I’m going. Walking up the hill takes a lot longer and isn’t a lot less painful/tiring. Soon M7 will open under Barbaros however and remove the need for such exertions, also the Asiyan-Hisarustu Funicular line will help as well.

In summation – Biking here is surprisingly easy, and crazy fun. The lack of rigidity in traffic makes it much more fun to ride here than in the U.S., more predictable, and seemingly for me, safer. Inşallah, more hillclimbing assists will be built in the next few years though, both for pedestrians and cyclists. (busses here don’t generally have bike racks, that could also be a solution for hills, busses with racks, and free transport along steep hill routes – though outfitting 6000+ busses with racks would be no cheap feat.)

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