Istanbul: A City Growing in 'Overdrive'

An overcrowded bus in Istanbul.

The Istanbul most visitors see -- the Istanbul of palaces and soaring minarets, of ferries on the Bosphorus, bargaining in the bazaar, and bustling nightlife -- lies within just a few of the city's more than 1,000 total square miles. The other Istanbul is the one I watch out the window of a bus for around two hours each day, an Istanbul of factories and freeways, of grey concrete buildings, trash-strewn empty lots, and -- most of all -- traffic.

My daily commute would seem like nothing to the two sisters interviewed in Aslihan Unaldi's new documentary film, "Overdrive: Istanbul in the New Millennium," which screened to a packed house last night at the 30th Istanbul Film Festival. The pair spend up to six hours a day on a series of buses, waking up at 5:30 each morning in order to get to work on time. "Today, Istanbul is the traffic," one says.

Population Doubling Every Dozen Years
The tangles on the the city's roads, and the rapid and massive population influx -- some 350,000 new people annually, doubling the population every 12 years -- that has taxed Istanbul's infrastructure past the limit, are hardly news to anyone who lives here. But in addition to providing a comprehensive look at the problem for outsiders, Unaldi's film offers some interesting insight into the historical roots of the problem.

Traffic noise fills the city.

"Old Istanbul," the capital of three empires, measured just 1,400 hectares (5 square miles); the modern city sprawls over 300,000 hectares (1,158 square miles) -- more by some measures. Obviously the ancient city was not planned for cars, but it truly was meant for pedestrians: In Ottoman times, only the most privileged even had horses. Perhaps just as important, one historian notes in the film, the "city's economy was dependent on the palace until the 19th century -- it consumed, it didn't produce." When the nascent Turkish Republic moved the power Istanbul had enjoyed for centuries to Ankara in 1923, "Istanbul had to redefine itself in industrial terms."

Car Ownership Increasing Rapidly
Realizing how recently modern Istanbul has emerged makes the growing pains it is facing somehow seem a bit more understandable. But something needs to be done quickly or the gridlock will only intensify. It's hard to believe given how many vehicles are clogging the city's roads, but currently, only one person in 10 has a car in Istanbul. (The nationwide figure for the United States is nearly eight in 10.) That is changing rapidly as 600 new vehicles enter city traffic each day, far outpacing population growth.

Government officials say the answer is a third Bosphorus bridge, but many residents and experts are skeptical, saying more roads have been shown to simply increase demand. Says Sibel Bulay, the Turkey director for the sustainable-transportation center EMBARQ, a sponsor of the film: "We should be focusing on the movement of people, not vehicles."

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Istanbul: A City Growing in 'Overdrive'
The Istanbul of palaces and soaring minarets, of bazaars and bustling nightlife, lies within just a few of the city's 1,000 total square miles. The other Istanbul is full of factories, freeways, grey concrete buildings, and -- most of all -- traffic.

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