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.”


To beat rising temperatures, Vienna launches a network of 'Cool Streets'

A Vienna resident cools off at one of the city's new Cool Streets installations. (Courtesy Christian Fürthner/Mobilitätsagentur Wien)

Over the past several months, Austria has recorded its highest unemployment rate since World War II, thanks to the economic aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. With no job or a suddenly smaller income – not to mention the continued threat of the virus – many Viennese will opt for a staycation this summer.  

At the same time, last year, Austria’s capital experienced 39 days with temperatures of over 30°C (86°F), one of its hottest summers in history according to the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics.

Climate experts expect a similarly sizzling 2020 season, and city officials are now doubling down on efforts to combat the heat by launching a “Cool Streets” initiative as well as a new, state-of-the-art cooling park.

“As the city councilwoman in charge of climate, it is my job to ensure local cooling,” Vienna’s deputy mayor Birgit Hebein proclaimed at the opening of one of 22 new “Cool Streets” on 22 June.

“In Austria, there are already more heat deaths than traffic fatalities,” she added.

Hebein was referring to the 766 people the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Security included in its 2018 heat-associated mortality statistics. The number was up by 31% compared to 2017, and in contrast to the 409 people who died in traffic collisions the same year.

The project includes 18 temporary Cool Streets located across the city, plus four roads that will be redesigned permanently and designated as “Cool Streets Plus”.

“The Plus version includes the planting of trees. Brighter surfaces, which reflect less heat, replace asphalt in addition to the installation of shadow or water elements,” said Kathrin Ivancsits, spokeswoman for the city-owned bureau Mobilitätsagentur, which is coordinating the project.

Vienna's seasonal Cool Streets provide shady places to rest and are closed to cars. (Petra Loho for CityMetric)

In addition to mobile shade dispensers and seating possibilities amid more greenery provided by potted plants, each street features a steel column offering drinking water and spray cooling. The temporary Cool Streets will also remain car-free until 20 September.

A sensor in the granite base releases drinking water and pushes it through 34 nozzles whenever the outside temperature reaches 25°C (77°F) . As soon as the ambient temperature drops to 23°C (73°F), the sensor, which operates from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., turns off the water supply.

The sensors were included in part to allay concerns about legionella, a pathogenic bacteria that can reproduce in water.  

“When the spray stops, the system drains, and therefore no microbial contamination can develop,” said Dr. Hans-Peter Hutter, deputy head of the Department of Environmental Health at the Center for Public Health at Medical University Vienna, in a televised interview.

Hutter also assured the public that there is no increased risk of a Covid-19 infection from the spray as long as people adhere to the one-meter social distance requirement.

But Samer Bagaeen of the University of Kent's School of Architecture and Planning notes that air cooling systems, like the ones used in Germany at abattoirs, have been found recently to be a risk factor for Covid-19 outbreaks.

“The same could be said for spay devices,” he warned.

Vienna’s district councils selected the 22 Cool Street locations with the help of the city’s Urban Heat Vulnerability Index. The map shows where most people suffer from heat by evaluating temperature data, green and water-related infrastructure, and demographic data.

“Urban heat islands can occur when cities replace the natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat,” as the US Environmental Protection Agency states.

A rendering of Vienna's planned park featuring a Coolspot, which is scheduled to open in August. Click to expand.
(Courtesy Carla Lo Landscape Architecture)

Vienna’s sixth district, Mariahilf, is such an area. The construction of the capital’s first “Cooling Park”, a €1 million project covering the 10,600 square-metre Esterházypark, is designed to provide relief. 

Green4Cities, a centre of excellence for green infrastructure in urban areas, designed the park’s main attraction, the “Coolspot”. The nearly 3.40-metre high steel trellis holds three rings equipped with spray nozzles. Textile shading slats, tensioned with steel cables, cover them.

The effects of evaporation and evapotranspiration create a cooler microclimate around the 30 square-metre seating area, alongside other spray spots selectively scattered across the park.

The high-pressure spray also deposits tiny droplets on plant and tree leaves, which stimulates them to sweat even more. All together, these collective measures help to cool their surroundings by up to six degrees.

The landscape architect Carla Lo and her team planned what she calls the “low-tech” park components. “Plants are an essential design element of the Cooling Park,” Lo says. “By unsealing the [soil], we can add new grass, herbaceous beds, and more climate-resistant trees to the existing cultivation”.

Light-coloured, natural stone punctuated by grass seams replaces the old concrete surfaces, and wooden benches meander throughout the park.

Living near the park and yearning for an urban escape close by, Lo says she’s motivated to ensure the park is completed by mid-August.

“If we don't do anything, Vienna will be another eight degrees Celsius hotter in 2050 than it already is,” Hebein said.

Vienna recently came in first in the World's 10 Greenest Cities Index by the consulting agency Resonance.

“There is no one size fits all on how cities respond to urban heat,” says the University of Kent’s Bagaeen, who points out that Vienna was one of the first European cities to set up an Urban Heat Islands Strategic Plan in 2015.

In the short term, prognoses on the city’s future development may be more difficult: Vienna votes this autumn.

Petra Loho is a journalist and photographer based in Austria.