In a recent bid to resolve Istanbul's seemingly intractable congestion problem, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan made a bold proposal - to limit car numbers and freeze the number of license plates being granted to drivers in the city. In spite of widespread condemnation, the proposal highlighted the need to take drastic measures in a choking urban hub, which accounts for 25% of all automobiles in Turkey.
Reducing traffic from 2.5m to 2m vehicles in Istanbul is a must according to the Prime Minister, with road infrastructure struggling to cope with the burden. Drawing on a plan that he first proposed and then withdrew as mayor of Istanbul, Erdogan suggested imposing a system of visas for cars. As then, the proposal recently triggered strong public criticism. Greater investment in infrastructure, rather than imposing limits to car usage, is the way forward, according to Turkish Union of Chambers and Commodities Exchanges (TOBB) Chairman Rifat Hisarciklioglu.
Hisarciklioglu is not alone in his opposition. Though obviously frustrated by bottlenecks, many residents do not believe new car owners should be penalised for the growth of the city and increased number of vehicles on the streets - a sentiment shared by the leadership of the political opposition. Criticising Erdogan's plan, leader of the Republican People's Party (CHP) Deniz Baykal points the finger at the municipalities for the increasingly snail-paced traffic. Like Hisarciklioglu, Baykal believes in building more underground metro tunnels and a more elaborate and extensive public transport system.
Yet initiatives have been taken to this end. One large-scale infrastructure project is well in progress. Launched in 2004 the Marmaray Project - a subterranean rail passage running beneath the Bosphorus linking the European and Anatolian sides of Istanbul - continues steadily. The service will be able to carry 150,000 passengers in an hour, with completion expected in 2009. Apart from the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge and the Bosphorus Bridge, a third bridge will be built across the strait, with the actual location of construction to be decided by the middle of 2007.
The two current Bosphorus bridges, which carry 350,000 vehicles per day from the Asian and European sides of Istanbul, can look forward to further relief in the years to come. In January, the transportation ministry's department of railways, ports and airports distributed tender documents for the construction of a Bosphorus road tunnel project designed to carry at least 25m vehicles every year, with a maximum toll of $3 per vehicle. Bidders will submit technical and feasibility studies for the undertaking, with the first tender scheduled for June 2007 and the survey and building process likely to take three years. Heavy-vehicles though will not be able to use the two storied 5.4km long tunnel.
But these measures may not be sufficient to cope with Istanbul's traffic problems, even when operational. Prime Minister Erdogan argues for the need to take alternative measures until Istanbul's infrastructure can cope with current and future levels of traffic.
He points out that the authorities in other highly populated cities in the world have intervened to reduce congestion. "Similar enforcements [to the ones he proposes] can be seen in London and Tokyo. London's whole traffic problem is solved by charging drivers when they drive their cars to the centre," Erdogan recently said.