Istanbul is building a 47km monorail network to deal with its crippling traffic congestion

A metro train crosses the Istanbul's Goldern Horn. The line opened last February. Image: Ozan Kose/AFP.

Istanbul has tried to combat its notorious traffic levels with nearly every type of public transport under the sun – buses, metrobuses, suburban and subway trains, trams, funiculars, cable cars, ferries, sea taxis, and the ever-popular shared taxi vans known as dolmush – but all to little avail. The city regularly tops road congestion rankings in Europe and beyond.

Now, for its latest projects, the city municipality has decided that the sky is no longer the limit.

Eight monorail lines will connect a number of neighbourhoods on both the European and Asian sides of the city, carrying 200,000 passengers a day. When completed, the 47 km-long system, called the Havaray, will be the first major monorail system in Europe. The municipality also hopes to span two cable car lines across the Bosphorus.

Turkey’s largest city is in desperate need of traffic relief. Three million private cars clog Istanbul’s roads; around 20,000 more join them every month, in addition to around 5,000 buses and 17,000 taxis.

These numbers, combined with central Istanbul’s old, narrow streets and the ever-busy bridges, create hour-long traffic jams: researchers found that the speedy 12-minute drive between the districts of Bakirkoy and Mecidiyekoy turned into a 115-minute crawl at peak time. In Europe, only Moscow has higher road congestion levels.

Such traffic jams not only annoy commuters, but cause significant economic damage. Travel delays and high petrol consumption in Istanbul cost the Turkish economy an estimated 6.5bn lira (around £1.8bn) each year.

The mayor of Tuzla, a district on the Asian side which will be connected to the Kartal neighbourhood via a three-kilometre monorail, therefore greeted the project with enthusiasm: the Havaray would be a “milestone” for Istanbul, he said.

Yet the city’s Chamber of Urban Planners is unsure whether the project will have any impact on Istanbul’s traffic. “You need a general plan,” said Akif Burak Atlar, the Chamber’s secretary-general. “Not just connecting two hills with a cable car, or connecting two provinces with a monorail.”

He worries that the Havaray’s separate lines will not be integrated into the wider public transport system, comparing the new schemes to the subway and metrobus stations at Mecidiyekoy. “They were opened in different times and it took five years for them to connect these stations. You couldn’t reach one station from the other,” he said.

Although the chamber supports investments into any kind of public transport, Atlar favours expanding the existing railway network over building a completely new system such as the monorail. “I was thinking, this is not what you learn at school. You bring a project like this in front of a jury, you fail at school.”

Istanbul's rapid transit network, as of September 2014. Click to expand. Image: Maximilian Dörrbecker via Wikimedia Commons.

Professor Mustafa Ilicali, a transportation consultant for the municipality, agrees: “Expanding railways will be Istanbul’s only saviour,” he told Turkey’s Anadolu Agency in October.

The municipality has launched several railway projects, and plans to add more than 600 km to its existing 150 km-long metro network within the next five years. In 2013, it completed the Marmaray railway, which links the Asian and European sides underneath the Bosphorus.

The Marmaray was expected to carry 1.5m passengers each day, reducing Istanbul’s traffic by 10 to 20 per cent. Yet one year after it was opened, just 110,000 commuters took the Marmaray every day.

Clearly, expansion is not enough: the municipality also needs to encourage commuters to swap their cars for buses, trams and trains, for example by reducing ticket prices, Atlar says.

“When you look at the railway use in Istanbul and compare it with Tokyo, New York, Paris, London, Berlin – it’s not more than 15 per cent. In Tokyo it’s more than 95 per cent,” he said. “More integrated, more comfortable and cheaper public transport will solve the traffic problem.”

Although he is undecided about the monorail, Atlar is critical of the municipality’s dream of a cable car ferrying commuters from Europe to Asia. “You can do it as an attraction. Cable car slowly crosses the Bosphorus, you can take pictures, nice for you, enjoy it – it’s for tourists."

He adds a warning about the need to maintain a protected view. “You have to be careful about the silhouette of the Bosphorus,” he says. “There is a law – if you act according to law, it shouldn’t be possible to build anything like that.”

 
 
 
 

CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is now a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission is to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

Please visit citymonitor.ai going forward, where you can also sign up for our free email newsletter.


As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our new digs. You can follow City Monitor on LinkedIn and on Twitter. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

To our readers, on behalf of the City Monitor team, thank you from all of us for being such loyal CityMetric fans. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.