Sunday, June 13, 2010

Getting Around in Istanbul - Everything but a Tuktuk

Istanbul is big.  Really big.  The official population is around 12 million, and the unofficial estimates go even higher.  (14?  18?  Who knows?)  It's grown quickly and haphazardly, spilling across the hills on either side of the Bosphorus.  Traffic is horrific - not just the drivers, but the congestion and the lack of major thoroughfares.  All those people have to get around somehow, though.  Like a good European city, Istanbul has a massive public transit system.  Like a large Middle Eastern city, it's incomplete and not quite logical.  However, with a bit of creativity, patience, and perseverance, it's not hard to get around the city in one way or another.  You could take a cab anywhere for reasonable fares, but where's the fun in that?

The mass transit system here is truly a system - unlike Washington, where your only options are bus or train, Istanbul has multiple overlapping methods of transit, including both public and privately run vehicles.  There's a single device, an Akbil, that allows a traveller to pay fares on almost all of the transit systems (except for the very smallest, private busses) and that offers discounted transfers between different methods of transit.  Supposedly the Akbil system will be upgraded to handle fares for everything in the city - cabs, museums, you name it.  I'll believe it when I see it, although the market penetration it already has is pretty impressive.  (WMATA, you're on notice.)

The first method I figured out was the metro, because I live right by one of the stations on line M2, which also gets me within an easy cab ride or a twenty-minute walk of the Consulate.  M2, as you might surmise, is the second metro line in the city.  However, it doesn't connect to M1, the metro line that runs to the airport - so there are two subway lines running in isolation.  (I hear there are also subway lines on the Asian side, but I haven't been there yet to verify this fact.)  You can connect between the two subway lines by using the tramway, which runs through the heart of the tourist district on a dedicated track - convenient for getting to Ayasofya, but not made for commuting.  Of course, this is the modern tramway, T1, and not the aptly named nostaljik tramvay, which runs down a pedestrian boulevard in the heart of the city and is roughly equivalent to the cable cars in San Francisco - for tourists only.  Also, when I said that you can connect between the subway and the modern tramway, I skipped one step - the funicular line (one of two in the city) that connects the M2 line to the T1 tram.  It's a two-stop cable car that runs back and forth from M2 to T1, and it's designed to handle the steep incline between the two lines in a way that a regular subway car couldn't.

Are you confused?  Take a deep breath - the cars are all clean, new, and shiny.  People here are incredibly polite, with no shoving and passenger rebellion like you'd expect in DC.  Besides, we haven't even gotten to the bus system yet.

Busses - there are a lot.  They helpfully have signs in the front windows that tell the major neighborhoods/transfer points their routes include.  Unfortunately, the downside of the bus network is that they are subject to the rules of the road here, which means A) they're affected by traffic congestion and B) the drivers are locals.  On Friday I was caught in a traffic jam for 15 minutes while one bus tried to negotiate its way out of a one-way street into a roundabout, going the wrong direction all the while.  There is also a rapid bus line that travels in dedicated lanes on one of the major highways, the belt road.  It provides easy access to the Asian side, major bus transfer points, and most of the various other transit systems.  There are also mini busses, privately run passenger vans for about 15-20 people that follow set routes.  You need cash for these, but they replicate a lot of the major bus lines and move much faster than the city busses do.  Their drivers are also the biggest jackasses on the road I have seen to date.

These are only the systems that I've taken.  Other options include light rail, heavy rail, ferry boats (!), dolmuş busses (possibly the same as the mini busses?  I'm not clear about that), and aerial cable cars.  Oh, and all of the rail lines are rapidly expanding.  Pretty much all we're missing is a tuktuk network.  So come on to Istanbul - bring your adventuring hat.  I'll have a spare Akbil for you.


  1. Dolmusler are thoroughly wonderful, and aa uniquely Turkish experience, so far as I know. Like minibusses, their routes are purely organic, in that they are defined by demand, not by any central plan. Unlike minibusses, however, you are forced to find a free square inch or two to occupy and then you hand your fare up to the driver, where it passes through the hands of everyone else in the bus, then they pass back your change. Apparently, it's all on the up and up, though I had my doubts.

    I never knew how much my fare was going to be, but Turks seem to have a kind of dolmus calculator wired into their nervous system. just pass forward 5 YTL, and you'll get back what you get back.

    Also, since standing on moving vehicles is illegal, remember to duck every time you see a cop.

    Have fun!

  2. I too found the rail network a bit inefficient, but clean and fast. A favorite activity in my short stay was just taking a few rides to the ends of the lines and watching the city change.

    I'm so jealous of you right now. Keep up the great posts, my vicarious life depends upon it!

  3. Ohhh man the ferry boats are my favorite! Visiting Kadikoy by ferry boat is a relaxing trip to Asia, as opposed to driving, and there's good exploring once you're there. And the longer trips to the islands are fantastic. It's so peaceful out there.

  4. It’s Friday, and that means that the Weekly State Department Blog Roundup is up – and you’re on it!

    Here is the link:

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