Istanbul & Traffic
If there is anything that the great city of Istanbul is renowned for, it’s the traffic. Driving in this huge Turkish city can be a nightmare. More often than not, twenty minute journeys are reported to take over an hour, tourists have to allow more than three times the journey time from the centre of the city to either of its two airports so as not to miss flights and roads and motorways are always jammed bumper to bumper with people trying to drive in, out and around the city. The traffic is as chaotic as the driving style of the locals.
One of the most frequently asked questions of tourists online about travel in and around Istanbul is whether or not they should hire a car. 18 million people live in Istanbul and being the 5th most popular city in the world to travel to, 12.5 million people visit every year. With Istanbul being the crossroads between Europe and Asia and a major business sector, millions of people come in and out of the city every day, creating mass traffic which the city’s infrastructure just cannot cope with. Most residents live on the Asian side of the Bosphorus and work on the European side, creating hoards of people trying to get across the river twice a day. Most of the city’s tourist attractions are in the historical area of Sultanahmet which also lies on the European side, attracting visitors across Istanbul’s bridges every day too.
Fortunately, the government and local councils have recognised this huge problem and have implemented many plans to try and alleviate the problem of traffic, which is also creating an immense amount of carbon emissions in the city, contributing massively to pollution levels and climate change. Not only has the city got a wealth of options when it comes to public transport in an effort to encourage people not to drive, but there are massive infrastructure projects in place at the moment which will create easier passages into the city for those who do chose to drive.
Driving in Istanbul
If you decide that you really must drive when you visit Istanbul, there are a few things that you need to know. Depending on where you hail from, you need to make sure that you know your left from right. All vehicles in Turkey drive on the right hand side of the road and cars are left hand drive. But really it is experience, caution and good sense that will get you through your encounter with the Istanbul traffic. You need super driving skills for the chaos of Istanbul’s roads, you need to be able to predict the insane driving behaviours of the locals and you should have amazing telepathic skills!
To begin with, it is helpful to know the rules of the road; there are none! Well, there don’t seem to be anyway. There are rules of course, but nobody seems to live by them. Red traffic lights mean nothing and really, neither do the green lights. Whenever you reach an intersection, make sure you check and double check what is happening around you. Ignore the mass of honking horns behind you and remain resolved to drive as safely and with as much awareness as you need. Observe the speed limits even if nobody else seems to, watch out for reckless overtaking and the competitive and selfish driving styles around you.
Pedestrians are a hazard too. Wherever you drive in Turkey, people seem to decide that walking out in front of traffic is ok. In fact, in Istanbul, if you are sat waiting at a red light and it turns green, if one pedestrian walks out across the road in front of you, a mass of people will follow leaving you stranded until the next green light. Driving styles and pedestrian hazards aside, parking is extremely difficult to come by in Istanbul. Even if you have successfully navigated your way through the traffic jams on the motorways, across the busy bridges and through the narrow one way streets, there is no guarantee that you’ll be able to find a very expensive space to leave your car. As a tourist, consider that you are most likely to spend the majority of your time in the historic district of Sultanahmet which is pedestrianised anyway. You will find yourself having to park miles away from the attractions anyway.
Really, driving in Istanbul is like playing chicken. In the first six months of 2015, a total of 129 people were killed in the 7,422 accidents that the city saw between January and June. Most of these accidents occur when drivers ignore right of way, one way systems and speed limits. Drink driving is also a huge problem on Turkish roads in general. So, if you decide to drive in Istanbul, have all of your senses with you and stick to the rules of the road.
Driving Tips for Tourists
The top tip for driving in Istanbul is to drive defensively. Be aware of all situations around you and use your horn to alert pedestrians and other drivers of where you are and what you are doing and pay attention to other horn users around you. Always check your mirrors when using your indicators and when changing lanes but confirm with a direct visual check. Use your lights at dusk and be aware than not everybody uses lights when they should making incoming traffic difficult to see. Most importantly, expect the unexpected, drive as though your mission is not to be involved in an accident, cause an accident or strike a pedestrian and assume nothing of other drivers.
The maximum speed limit on the highway is 90km/h, on interstate highways it is 120km/h and in the city is only 50km/h. Be aware of drivers passing on the right and cutting in from the right, that not everybody indicates and that cars, trucks and buses will stop anywhere, whenever they feel like it. People pass on blind corners, drivers tend to tailgate, animals and pedestrians cross when they want to and not all intersections are marked. The primary road has the right of way, but proceed with caution. If you find yourself in an aggressive altercation with another driver, remain in your car with the doors locked and call the police. If you are unfortunate enough to be involved in an accident, do not move your car and wait until the police arrive.
If that was enough to put you off driving in Istanbul, you will be happy to hear that the bustling city is home to one of the best public transport networks in the world and it is incredibly easy to get around, with even more construction of public services under way.
The Bosphorus Ferry is one of the oldest means of transit in the city, founded in 1837. Originally they were steam ferries and each one was privately run. Since 2006 the traditional commuter ferries have been operated by the municipality. There are 15 ferry lines with 27 seaports on the shores of the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara. The ferries carry 61 million passengers a year. The Seabus, established in 1987 is also a water based mode of transport, also run by the municipality which runs 28 catamarans, including 6 fast car ferries between 29 terminals.
Construction of the underground metro began in 1992 and the first line (M2) between Taksim and 4th Levent went into service on the 16th of September 2000. There are currently five lines in operation, four on the European side with three more under construction and one of the Asian side with two more planned. The light metro runs over and underground and currently connects Atatürk Airport with the old city. The city also sports two funicular trains, the Tünel being the oldest underground metro line in continental Europe and second in the world after the London Underground. It has been continuously in service since 1875, a second more modern funicular line was opened in 2006 connecting the Seabus port and the tram stop of Kabataş with the metro station at Taksim Square. Suburban and interstate overground trains are also available.
Istanbul is also home to a fantastic tram system. Horse trams were initially used in 1872, with electric trams introduced in 1912 and they were the main means of urban public transport until 1966 when the trams were closed. A heritage tram was opened on the European side of the Bosphorus in 1990, but a modern system was also implemented in 1992. The Asian side now also has a heritage tram system too. The Istanbul bus system was set up in 1926 with four buses; there were 525 buses by 1960. Today, the metros which has a fully dedicated right of way, high capacity vehicles and station platforms, has a daily ridership of 715,000 passengers. The alternative local bus system has 4012 vehicles in use including 2157 privately owned buses and transports over 4 million people every day.
New Infrastructure Plans for the City
The government has recognised the need for change on the roads of Istanbul and several huge infrastructure projects have already begun across the city with many more plans in the pipeline. These projects have been set up by the Transportation, Maritime and Communications Ministry as part of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government’s 2023 objectives.
One initiative which very recently opened is the Izmir Bay Bridge, part of the Gebze-Orhangazi- Izmir Highway Project, known as the Istanbul Izmir Highway. This highway project connects Istanbul, Yalova, Bursa, Balıkesir, Manisa, Kütahya and Izmir and will serve over 38 million people, reducing travel time between the cities exponentially. The bridge is located at the Gulf of Izmir, approximately 50 km southeast of Istanbul and is the fourth longest suspension bridge in the world. Perhaps more well known is the near completion of the Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge, also known as Istanbul’s third bridge. This bridge connects 120km of highway and access roads in Istanbul and allows easy transport from the Asian side of the river to the European side. The bridge will have four motorway lanes and one railway line in each direction and n completion this August, it will be the longest combined motorway/railway bridge in the world; 135,000 vehicles are expected to use the bridge in each direction, every day.
It is not just new bridges that are being introduced to Istanbul, a number of underwater tunnels are also under construction. The Eurasia Tunnel Project is due to open at the end of the year, linking Kazlıçeşme on Istanbul’s European side and the Asian side’s Göztepe. The project aims to reduce congestion and the dense traffic on the suspension bridges with cross the Bosphorus. On completion, it will be the world’s deepest underwater tunnel. The project will employ 800 people, contribute $191.3 million to the region annually, reduce 82,000 tons of emissions and save 38 million litres of gasoline.
Just last week the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality Council approved plans to build another two new tunnel projects on the European side of the city. The first will be a two way underwater tunnel which will connect the Unkapanı and Kasımpaşa districts under the Golden Horn. The tunnel will eventually replace the aging, historical Atatürk Bridge. The second project covers three interconnected highway tunnels between the Dolmabahçe and Fulya Districts, the Fulya and Levazım districts and the Levazım and Baltalimanı districts.
An innovative metro and car tunnel is also planned which is currently one of the largest transport projects in the world, with about 2.5 billion Euros of investment. The three level tunnel will connect Europe with Asia under the Bosphorus Strait and will be the first of its kind with regard to size and concept. This is known as the Marmaray project. The line will cover 76.3km and the journey will take just 14 minutes. Six and a half million passengers are expected to use the system. Turkey also intend the “Iron Silk Road” (Baku-Tbilisi-Kars Railway Project) to be open by the end of the year. This project intends to compete a transport corridor linking Azerbaijan to Turkey, and therefore Central Asia and China to Europe. The line is intended to transport an initial annual volume of 6.5 million tonnes of goods, rising to a long term target of 17 million tonnes.
Perhaps one day Istanbul will be a joy to drive around and visitors will be able to enjoy fast and safe journeys on the roads with fun trips through state of the art tunnel systems and marvel at the amazing views of the Bosphorus from one of the incredible Istanbul suspension bridges. But until that day, it is highly recommended that tourists take advantage of the extensive and easy to use public transport options and save themselves a stressful time behind the wheel!