Istanbul, and the Mists of Time
by Peter Guest
As I write this, I am a long way away from my normal UK patch, in Istanbul, one of the most interesting cities in the world. Istanbul, Constantinople, Byzantium -- its origins are lost in the mists of time, although archaeological finds go back some eight and a half millennia.
It has been the capital of the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, with world-class architecture such as Hagia Sophia, which started life as the biggest Christian church in the Ancient World, was converted to a mosque in 1453 when the city fell to Sultan Mehmed II, and, since 1934, has been a museum.
Istanbul sits astride the divide between the continents of Europe and Asia. Turkey is a place of contrasts; the state is constitutionally secular, and yet the majority of the population are Sunni Muslims. However, Turkey is quite separate from its Arab neighbors, with a distinct language and culture.
I am here in late May to participate in 2015 Intertraffic Istanbul, with the parallel 4th International Transport and Vehicle Park Areas Management Symposium.
Yours truly, with speakers from other European countries, plus Professor Pan Haixiao from the College of Architecture and Urban Planning at Tongji University in Shanghai, were joined on the platform by an eclectic mix of local speakers to talk about, guess what, parking.
In “the West,” we are used to having speaker lists made up of industry big-wigs, plus the occasional academic. Intertraffic Istanbul does things very different. For sure, it had the usual suspects, though with rather more academics than is the norm. However, here at 2015 Intertraffic, the debate involves everyone.
Panel membership included several mayors, public servants, at least one journalist (who has a local reputation for savaging the city parking company for its perceived failures), plus, I think (the translation was a bit random), a local trades union leader.
Moreover, although the event was organized by ISPARK, the city-owned parking management company, it seemed to be run by a local TV channel that taped the whole event, and whose anchorwoman contributed a couple of recent broadcasts on “The Traffic Problem” and acted as master of ceremonies.
She made a very strong point about congestion, with an item about a guy who cycles to work (15 minutes) every day, when it took the camera crew 45 minutes for the same trip.
An old saying holds that those who do not learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat its mistakes. Nowhere does this seem to be truer than with urban transport.
After WWII, as economies recovered, people aspired to and bought cars. Congestion grew; cities started to manage street space to ensure better traffic flow and built parking garages so people could use their cars. Only it didn’t work. Problems grew at a rate that was unsustainable, and inevitably, one by one, cities started to introduce strategies aimed at slowing and then reversing the car ownership/use monster.
London probably was first with the 1976 Greater London Development Plan, which virtually ruled out further parking in the city core and focused on upgrading and enlarging the public transportation system linked to policies that, only 30 years later resulted in the London “congestion charge” program.
(Paris sought a similar outcome, but with a greater focus on upgrading the metro system and pushing employers to fund staff public transport travel.)
The world has changed and cities are now seeing younger residents turning away from car ownership and use, with the result that car mileage has turned the corner and is actually dropping, in some places quite dramatically.
None of this seems to have yet penetrated the collective consciousness of the burghers of Istanbul. It is a rapidly growing city of some 14 million. Urbanization is rapidly increasing, and with it growth in traffic and travel demand.
They are on the same curve as us, but perhaps a few decades behind. Of course, they have the advantage that the techniques and technology of urban traffic control have improved immensely, but still seem on the same treadmill of seeing out-of-control traffic growth and sitting in smoke-filled rooms talking about how they can deal with it.
It’s simple; you can’t. The Istanbul car fleet is growing by 500 vehicles a day. That’s 500 spaces just to have these vehicles stand still, and 1,000 to 1,500 spaces if they are going to be used. Won’t happen, can’t do it. There are not enough steel and concrete, and not enough constructors to keep up.
So what happens? People start to convert land to parking, often by the loss of green space. More and more drivers park illegally, further degrading the road network and reducing capacity, and the situation just gets worse and worse.
The only place that seems to have got anywhere near avoiding this problem is Shanghai. It and Istanbul are of similar size and probably have similar economic growth; however, the city fathers in Shanghai seem to understand the risk of unfettered vehicle growth, and rather than deregulating car ownership, they limit the number of cars that can be bought. They auction a fixed number of permits each month to the highest bidder, meaning that growth in Shanghai is about one-third of that in Istanbul. The money collected is reinvested in transport, and in little more than a decade, the metro network has grown from just 40 km to more than 500 km.
Every foreign speaker on the panel said the same in response to the city’s “predict and provide” philosophy — Don’t do it!
Looking round the attached Intertraffic exhibition floor showed many of the usual suspects, such as HUB and Skidata, but interestingly, there also was a nascent domestic industry, with local companies such as Parksistem offering what appears to be a very interesting new take on the idea of PARC systems.
And, finally, I seem to have reached an age when I am no longer considered a potential terrorist threat! At various times in various airports, I have been caught up in some kind of alert where travelers, including me, have been subject to targeted additional checks and luggage searches.
Something had jerked the wires of security at Istanbul Ataturk Airport, and as my younger fellow passengers went through the security gate, each one was subject to a hand luggage check and a pat-down search. When it was my turn, I turned toward the “search team,” only to be waved away -- too old, I guess. Not sure whether to be happy or sad. PTT