Travel in Istanbul, a city with a population of more than 13 million, has nearly come to a standstill with millions of people spending hours in traffic congestion every day, and experts put the blame on the growth of uncontrolled building in the city, which has gathered speed since the 2000s.
Since the start of the new school year last month and the beginning of seasonal rains, traffic congestion in İstanbul has become even worse and more intolerable. It can take several hours to cover a distance of even a few kilometers. Moreover, traffic congestion is not limited to peak hours, as there is a traffic jam at almost every hour of the day.
İstanbul has a transportation system based on an east-west grid, with the bulk of its heavy traffic shouldered by the E-5 and TEM highways. Yet these large highways do not ease the growing traffic transportation problems.
Giant shopping malls and massive building projects adjacent to these highways all attract millions of people to these places and experts say İstanbul's transport infrastructure is not sufficient to keep up with the growing population.
For instance, the population in the Beylikdüzü district of İstanbul, which was once an agricultural area, has increased by nearly 10 times over the past two decades. In a region where only 2,000 people lived in the 1990s, the population rose to 36,000 in 2000, to 112,000 in 2007, reached 218,000 in 2011 and 233,000 today due largely to large building projects. The population growth inevitably led to more traffic congestion on the roads leading to and within the district and the local residents suffer through traffic jams during peak hours every day.
There is a similar picture in the Başakşehir district, where a new building project is seemingly launched each and every day. While the district's population was 226,000 in 2009, it rose to 248,000 in 2010 and to 284,000 in 2011.
Nor is the situation different on the Anatolian side of İstanbul. In Ataşehir, which hosts the high-cost building projects of many real estate companies, the population was 375,000 in 2011 and rose to 387,000 in 2012.
According to Professor Semih Tezcan, a lecturer in the civil engineering department of Boğaziçi University, İstanbul should no longer be allowed to grow and authorities should stop granting permits for construction on every piece of vacant land.
He also said mega-projects worth billions of dollars, such as Kanal İstanbul, a new waterway that will stretch for 44 kilometers and connect the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara as well as the construction of a third airport in İstanbul, which he said have no feasibility, will mean putting İstanbul's future at risk.
“These projects are ones which will lead to a population boom in İstanbul. While İstanbul's population is already increasing, permits continue to be given out for giant building projects, leading to urbanization craziness. Randomly constructed buildings in each and every vacant area have dragged İstanbul into chaos. A new master plan should be drafted for İstanbul. Without a new master plan, no new construction should be allowed. This is the only way to prevent the population boom. Traffic flow is very slow in İstanbul. We have to wait for hours in traffic. In short, İstanbul should no longer be allowed to grow,” he said.
Environmental organizations, urban planners and many İstanbul residents have voiced serious concerns about the construction of a third bridge over the Bosporus and a third airport in the city, warning that these projects will damage the city's remaining green areas, make the city's nightmarish traffic even worse and lead to more growth in the city's already dense population. Yet the government has disregarded the criticisms and launched the billion-dollar projects earlier this year.
Mustafa Gürsoy, a transportation expert, suggested imposing restrictions on the people who want to settle in İstanbul, saying that there are examples of this in some cities around the world.
“For instance, a Russian cannot go to Russia and settle there without any restrictions. They first need to get a residence permit. But, there are no restrictions on people settling in İstanbul. This needs to be stopped,” he said.
In 2007, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan suggested instituting visa procedures for İstanbul to slow the population growth in the city, yet no step has been taken to that effect so far.
According to Korhan Gümüş, an architect, the real cause of traffic delays in İstanbul is the densely constructed building and the opening of the city's remaining green areas to construction.
“When we take a look at similar examples in the world, we see that there is never traffic congestion in any part of the Netherlands. The density of population is higher than that of İstanbul. Here, the issue is not the density of the population. The important thing is to maintain a balance in the population and have well-planned construction within the city,” he said.
Population on the European side should be reduced
Population statistics from the 1980s show that 68.8 percent of İstanbul's population lived on the European side and 31.2 percent lived on the Asian side. Over the past 30 years, there has been a gradual increase in the number of residents on the Anatolian side; as of 2010, 64.6 percent of İstanbul's population lived on the European side while 35.4 percent of the population lived on the Anatolian side. According to the İstanbul Provincial Environmental Plan, the population of the European side should recede to 62.9 percent while the population on the Anatolian side should be increased to 37.1 percent. However, the population on the European side of the city is expected to increase even further due to giant construction projects such as the third airport and Kanal İstanbul.