The heat is burning down onto the roof of the sickening hot bus, people are desperately trying to get closer to the few small windows that are open, their faces are squished against the glass, sweat running down their faces. That’s what public transportation in Istanbul often looks like especially during the warmer months between April and November.
People from across the country are drawn to the megacity of Istanbul. Whatever side one turns, a construction site is never far away. Entire so-called sites with hundreds of apartments are being stamped out of the ground. Istanbul has supposedly tripled its size within the last decade. More buildings, more people, more cars. The only thing there isn’t more of is public transportation – especially undergrounds.
Arriving in new cities I first get myself a map of the underground system to find my way around. Imagine my surprise once I realised that there wasn’t a lack of maps but actually a lack of metros. “But Istanbul had the world’s first underground,” a friend of mine – Turkish of course – proudly countered. It wasn’t the world’s first but Europe’s second starting its service in 1875.Still great, but what has happened since then?
It seems that while cities around Europe caught up with Istanbul and built and then expanded their underground networks, the city of Istanbul contently sat back and waited and waited and waited some more. Which leaves the bigger part of the population depending on the multiple buses and minibuses to get around. Or rather to get stuck in traffic doing an average of 5 km/h as in the inner parts of Istanbul many of the roads still aren’t wider than during the middle ages when they were built to have the occasional horse drawn carriage pass by.
Now it’s not all bad when it comes to public transportation. The good side is you really get to know some of the people on your bus or dolmus. I used to take a bus from Beylikdüzü on the European side of Istanbul to Taksim twice a week. It didn’t take long for the entire bus to know that I was a foreigner with a Turkish boyfriend – I was told off for not being married at least once a week – planning to stay in Istanbul for just one year –I was told off for not wanting to stay permanently in the world’s most beautiful city.
Sharing a bus not only extended to exchanging information and of course advice about one’s life, in the case of the E58 bus to Taksim it also meant sharing breakfast. I couldn’t believe my eyes when on my first Friday on the bus someone handed me a plastic cup with orange juice and a cheese sandwich. I gratefully dug into my sandwich only to have passed a second one down the aisle as soon as I was finished. It turned out not to be a one-off occasion but a regular occurrence on Fridays. No surprise then that Fridays turned out to be my favourite day on the bus.
While still not having more underground lines – stations are being built at the moment – Istanbul has introduced the Metrobus. A bus with its own line going from Avcilar on the European outskirts of Istanbul all the way to the Asian side. It’s fantastic and well loved amongst the many commuters. It’s efficient, fast – apart from the occasionally break-down because of too many passengers aboard – and has got air-conditioning. It’s almost like public transportation in European cities. And just like in European cities people avoid looking at each. And don’t expect men to stand up for women like they do on the buses and minibuses. Give me a slow hot bus any day.