So much to learn

We have many reasons to be proud of South Africa. Alas, our public transport is not one of them.

I have been to Dubai and Istanbul – two very different places – over the past month. But, while they are poles apart in so many ways (Dubai is the epitome of a modern society; Istanbul has so many ancient secrets to share), they share one common trait: marvellous public transport.

Turn to page 68 of this issue of FOCUS. You will be able to read about public transport in that part of the world – including my (blush blush) experience of being arrested on the metro.

I didn’t manage to get myself arrested in Istanbul – despite my finest attempts. However, I was equally impressed at the eclectic city’s public transport offering. Like Dubai, it offers a multi-modal mix of rail, bus, taxis and water ferries/taxis. Like Dubai, public transport in Istanbul is both reliable and cheap.

Take inter-city transport for instance. You can travel from Ankara to Istanbul (it takes around four hours) in a five-star coach, complete with video on demand and a proper bar, for around R200. How cool is that?

But back to Istanbul itself. The provision of proper public transport is a challenge – the city is really spread out. When I say “spread out” I mean this quite literally; it covers an area of 5 712 km² and two continents (Europe and Asia). In fact, it’s the only major city in the world to have attained the latter honour.

It’s also a very highly populated city – my tour guide mentioned a figure of 15 million and I can well believe it (Wikipedia claims a mere 13 million); the streets are buzzing with activity and people – day and night.

So how do they get around? Well, apart from those who are fortunate enough to own cars, they use an extensive bus network, various rail systems, funiculars, maritime services, taxis and trams.

The Istanbul Electric Tram and Funicular Company (IETT) is responsible for public transport in the city and, as its name implies, one of its areas of responsibility is the trams. For me, they are especially delightful – because they’re not hindered by traffic. In fact, one day I boarded a bus and, after 20 minutes or so, jumped off and boarded a tram. The bus just wasn’t moving, while the trams were whizzing on by. I didn’t even think twice about tossing my bus ticket – the bus and tram tickets cost around R8,00.

Incidentally, while the trams in Istanbul are modern (the city uses low-floor Bombardier Flexity Swift trams and ABB LRT cars), the concept is not new to the city. Public road transport in Istanbul dates back to 1869, when a contract to build a tram system in the capital of the Ottoman Empire was signed. With this agreement, Konstantin Krepano Efendi’s “Société des Tramways de Constantinople” obtained the concession to operate public transportation for 40 years. The inauguration of four lines of horse-drawn trams took place in 1871. In the first year, the horse cars transported 4,5 million people. In 1912, the horse-drawn tram had to cease operations for one year because the Ministry of Defence sent all the horses to the front during the Balkan War. The tram network was electrified in 1914.

Bus transport in Istanbul started in 1926 with four Renault-Scania buses operating between Beyazit and Karaköy. The fleet grew from nine buses in 1942 to 16 in 1955 and to 525 buses in 1960. Today the IETT runs a fleet of almost
3 000 buses (the most recent figures I could get were 448 MAN, 1 291 Ikarus, 988 Mercedes-Benz, 39 DAF/Optare and six VDL Berkhof, but these are probably slightly out of date).

Since 1985, private-owned buses are allowed to operate under the audit of IETT. There are about 1 366 private-owned public buses in the city, including 89 double-deckers.

There’s also a bus rapid transit (BRT) system in Istanbul, which kicked off in 2005. Stretching across both continents, it is 40 km long and has 33 stations, which are located on Istanbul’s main Highway, called the D100. The line is served by Mercedes-Benz CapaCity, Mercedes-Benz Citaro and DAF buses.

As I mentioned, this runs in parallel with various rail systems, funiculars, boats/ferries and, of course, taxis that trawl all over the city. With the exception of the taxis, it is possible to pay for public transport on all of these offerings using an iButton plastic fob or smart card. Having said that, there is still a bus conductor at the front of each and every bus, collecting coins from passengers. It is rather quaint, I thought – and good in that it creates employment.

Dr Mimar Kadir Topba, mayor of Istanbul, is ever so proud of public transport in his city. “We have been showing significant progression in the processes that will solve the problem of transportation, which congests the veins of Istanbul. As a result of our efforts, we have shrunk the home-work distance to 36 minutes from 59 minutes. Our aim is to make public transportation attractive. This depends on the transportation systems to be comfortable, fast, safe and cheap. We are knitting railways all over Istanbul. We are developing marine transportation, increasing the capacity of highway public transportation and also modernizing it,” he states.

Of course, he’s a politician – and therefore he’s not to be trusted entirely. But, having witnessed public transport in action firsthand, I reckon Istanbul does deserve a hearty pat on the back. Maybe our politicians should dash across there. Because… my, my… when it comes to public transport, we have a lot to learn…

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