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Where bicycling is only for the brave
|Cycling, the healthiest and cheapest form of transportation, is a challenge when it comes to Istanbul. Lack of bike lanes, insensitive drivers, plus pedestrians who often don’t look behind make it more difficult to ride in the city. So who rides in Istanbul and where?|
Legendary band Queen sang "I want to ride my bicycle. I want to ride it where I like" almost 30 years ago and Istanbul could have provided the backdrop. But, in 2008, with 12 million people and more than 2 million cars, Istanbul is no longer the ideal city for cycling.
If one were to ride freely in this city today, possible scenarios include being hit on the head by a grocery basket thrown from a window or being stopped by pedestrians confused about which way to walk when they see a bike rider.
"I was riding on the pavement and someone spilled a bucket of water on my head," said 19-year-old Mehmet Sayhun, a university student.
There are many obstacles to bike riding. A lack of bike lanes and parking spots is one; let alone the aggressive drivers and picnic-lovers invading the few bike lanes that do exist. Contrary to many European cities, one might easily live without ever learning how to ride a bike in this city, as with Poyraz Ersan, a 28-year-old writer who learned how to ride a bike after the age of 25.
"I learned how to ride when I was living in Canada. In Vancouver everyone has a bike; people don't even use public transportation that much. I did ride a few times here too, but I wouldn't do it every day."
Poyraz said pedestrians could be as dangerous as drivers.
"Once I was riding on the pavement and an old woman threw her grocery basket from the balcony onto my head without even looking down. I have also seen women shaking off carpets from their window while we were riding right underneath."
"I actually feel much safer on the highway. Drivers, unless they are psychopaths, check if someone is coming, but pedestrians never do," said another cyclist, Umut İplikçioğlu, one of the few people who ride to work every day. "People let their kids run in the bike lanes thinking that it is a free zone."
Murat Suyabatmaz, president of the Cyclists Association, laments the condition of Istanbul's bike lanes.
"There are actually bike lanes already built – like around Galata Bridge, Etiler or Bostancı – but they do not have signs so it becomes hard for pedestrians to understand that those lanes are in fact for cyclists. Plus, the additional benches and trashcans placed in these lanes make it impossible to use them. Some bike lanes are used by restaurants for parking and some are used for barbecues," said Suyabatmaz.
Another problem is the lack of parking areas for cyclists.
"Even the Princes' Island – the most bike friendly area in Istanbul – does not have parking areas. Parking zones also require as much planning as road construction," Suyabatmaz said.
Safety also seems to be another issue; most cyclists don't want to leave their bikes outside for fear they will be stolen.
"I take my bike upstairs with me," said another cyclist, Yılmaz Seyfi, 43, who also rides to work every day between Üsküdar and Bostancı.
No bike lanes till 2023
Istanbul Mayor Kadir Topbaş promised in 2004 there would be 630 kilometers of bike lanes built in the city. The contract was given to BİMTAŞ, an affiliate company of the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, or İBB. Since then, the plan for 630 kilometers of bike lanes has been increased to 1,004 kilometers, but construction has yet to start.
The project is expected to be completed by 2023, according to the İBB.
"The routes for bike lanes have been planned in four zones. The preliminary work for the first and second zones has been completed. The first routes to be constructed are between Bakırköy Ferry Port and Alibeyköy, between Eminönü and Beşiktaş Square, and between Üsküdar and Kartal," said Necati Aksüt, a spokesperson for İBB.
"2023 is so far ahead," said Suyabatmaz. "We also gave a plan to İBB for a pilot bike lane area to be build around Haliç and Ataköy but there is still no answer. Let's not waste time with building lanes on ramps in Cihangir."
Over 2 million bikes
Despite all the problems, the number of bikes in the city is not to be underestimated.
"We estimate the number of bikes in this city at 2.5 million," said Suyabatmaz.
The Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality gave away 9,000 bikes to successful students last year, meaning that the level of promotion of cycling continues to exceed the city's infrastructure for it.
"New York City, with its huge traffic problem has 450 kilometers of bike lanes," said Suyabatmaz. "They have enlarged the highways in Istanbul to build the Metrobus. Cycling is the cheapest and the healthiest form of transportation. It is the only way to commute in case an earthquake happens. Why are we so behind?"