Cycling and the City

N.B. This article was originally published as part of my weekly ‘Island Living’ series for the a national newspaper in Turkey. Unfortunately in a move to clamp down on press freedom in Turkey, the gpvernment took over the newspaper, shutting down the English version and deleting its entire archive. As such it appears in word document form.

Cycling and the City

Rhiannon J Davies

My brother had been visiting me on Büyükada for just a few days when he made what seemed to me to be an odd remark; “For somewhere with such a small population, there’s quite a high proportion of people with disabilities living on this island.” I replied that it wasn’t something I’d ever noticed. Surprised, he replied, “But surely you must have seen the number of mobility scooters on the streets.” I realized his error; he’d mistaken the islanders’ fondness for the comfort of sheltered electric transport for their using them out of necessity due to mobility issues.

Indeed, there has been a large increase in the ownership of these nifty little vehicles in recent years, as islanders find their own ways to get around the ‘no cars’ rule. Electric bikes are also hugely popular. But though I am a little envious of them as they whizz past me when I’m puffing uphill using pedal power alone, I still (somewhat smugly) much prefer the feeling of achievement that I get from having reached a summit.

Another phenomenon my keen-eyed keen cyclist of a brother noticed while he was here was people’s propensity to get off their push bikes whenever they reach the slightest of inclines. As a fitness fanatic who purposefully seeks out hills this was beyond his comprehension. Yet, many locals can sympathize. I was once watching a televised Istanbul-based professional cycling race with a Turkish friend, who wondered out loud how it was going to work when they reached the uphill stretch that is Barboros Bulvarı in Beşiktaş. He was amazed when they stayed on their bikes and pedalled up it as if it was no big deal.

When I cycle-toured across Turkey, drivers often stopped to find out where I was going and then try and insist that it would be much better if they gave me a lift. I had to patiently explain time and again that I enjoyed cycling, was in no great rush to get to my destination and was doing this out of choice. Yet, it does seem sometimes that those who cycle in Turkey do so more often out of necessity rather than choice – particularly here on the Princes’ Islands.

The exceptions are the Lycra-clad sports cyclists who roll off the boat here at weekends, attracted by the prospect of traffic-free cycling. You might also see speeding up and down the few cycle paths that the city has, perhaps along the Marmara coastline on the Asian side, or the promenades beside the Bosphorus. They’re easy to spot as they’re likely to be riding expensive models and wearing the latest kit. Enthusiastic cyclists they may be, but by taking to this extreme, they risk alienating potential cyclists who may regard it as a pastime only for the ultra-dedicated.

 Turkey is yet to embrace cycling in the same way that is has been taken up elsewhere in the world – as an alternative means of transport as well as a lifestyle choice, that promotes fitness, being outdoors and reducing your carbon footprint. There are a few cycle paths in Istanbul that may be passable during the winter months, but as anyone who’s ever cycled along the coastal route that from Kadıköy towards Bostancı knows, they fill with hazards when the sun appears. Women pushing baby strollers, children playing ballgames, and (perhaps most annoyingly) men fanning barbecues all treat these lanes as their own during summer time, making cycling along them almost impossible.

 To counter this, a group called Bisikletli Ulaşım Platformu (Cyclists’ Transport Platform) organizes protest rides that seek to reclaim the paths for their proper use. They’ve also developed an app that shows the location of potential hazards and bicycle shops around the city. Their aim to encourage Istanbulites to think of cycling as a way of getting around the city (and not just as a leisure pursuit) is laudable but while it remains so unsafe, it’s also unthinkable to many commuters. As someone who has cycled many times in Istanbul, I find it shocking how little regard some drivers have for the lives of cyclists here. I follow the highway code and cycle responsibly, wearing a helmet and a high visibility vest to make my presence known to drivers. Yet, I’ve still had occasions when, after locking eyes with a driver, they’ve swerved into me, cut me up, or otherwise endangered my life. Sadly, there isn’t much driver awareness of cycling here, which is, in part, due to the fact there are so few cyclists on the road. The reason there are so few cyclists on the road, of course, is because of the dangers incurred from the lack of driver awareness; a catch 22 that has us peddling around in circles.

Bisikletli Ulaşım Platformu is not the only group formed to encourage cycling in Istanbul. Bisiklet Derneği is an association founded to raise awareness and educate people about cycling benefits. They organize regular events as well as teaching first aid to cyclists. A rather more radical approach is taken by Critical Mass Istanbul. This internationally linked organization holds monthly meet ups in the city. The aim is simple; to reclaim the streets for cyclists. Chants of “araba dan in, bisiklete bin” (get out of your car, get onto a bike) can be heard by the dozens of cyclists that meet. They don’t follow a set route, but rather let themselves be led by whoever is front, as a mobile cycling mass. The more experienced cyclists will hold traffic back to allow the group to pass, and hand out leaflets to pedestrians. Occasionally the group stops at a junction to raise their bicycles over their heads and cause a disruption. The reaction is rather mixed; usually greeted with beeps and annoyance by drivers and often with cheers and claps from pedestrians.

For those that want to cycle but are a little put off by the activism of the above groups, the tourism industry has stepped in to fill a niche, particularly for bicycle fanatics visiting the city. There are many rental bike shops for those who want to try it independently (for something a little different, check out the cyclists’ coffee shop, Sedona Concept in Yeniköy). However, for those who prefer a little guidance, you can take a bicycle tour of different areas of the city with companies like Istanbul Tour Studio and Istanbul On Bike. These are good options for those who want to test the waters of cycling in the city, and perhaps learn a little about its sights along the way.

In the UK the government introduced tax exemption incentives to encourage more people to bike to work; reduced rate bicycles, and showering facilities for cyclists have become the norm in large offices. Even London, which is still catching up with more cycle-friendly European cities, has over 11,000 bicycles available to hire as part of its self-service, bike-sharing scheme and miles of cycling lanes that act as commuter highways. Yet here there is still much to be done.

To mark the Presidential Cycling Tour of Turkey last year, President Erdoğan, cycled one kilometer along the Bosphorus on a custom-made bicycle. He was supposed to be cycling two kilometers, but rather than make the return journey by bike, he opted to get into a car to journey back to the start. He may have given a speech to encourage cycling in Turkey, but sometimes actions speak louder than words.