Istanbul’s traffic-choked streets and impatient drivers once led a newspaper to dub cycling in the city a pastime fit “only for the brave”, but the mayor of one neighbourhood has taken to the saddle and is helping to change that reputation.
In Zeytinburnu, a district on the European side that lies between Istanbul Atatürk Airport and the tourist attractions of Sultanahmet, Murat Aydin is spearheading a campaign to persuade commuters to abandon horsepower for pedal power, and in the process is saving his council thousands.
Four months ago, Mr Aydin gave up his official car, strapped on his cycling helmet and took to his bike to get to and from appointments. Following his example, dozens of municipal workers have since adopted two wheels, saving the council more than 132,000 liras (Dh 77,000) in transport costs.
Mr Aydin’s unintended savings come at a time when Turkey is grappling with a falling lira, a surging budget deficit and rising inflation that has put a strain on local finances.
The mayor, who was first elected in 1999, says he pedals at least 10 kilometres every day, saving about 80 litres of fuel a week, and brags that travelling by bike is faster than coping with traffic jams.
Every Thursday evening, Mr Aydin leads an ever-growing number of cyclists through the neighbourhood in a bike club as onlookers wave from balconies and bemused motorists watch the procession. The council says bike use has risen seven-fold since the start of the campaign.
“When I was in my twenties I always dreamed of going from Zeytinburnu to the Black Sea by bike,” said Mr Aydin, 58.
“In the 1980s, when I first came to Zeytinburnu, the roads were not much but there were a lot of people using bikes. At that time, people preferred using bikes but later the use of bikes became more difficult. A year-and-a-half ago we started working on how to bring cycling back to life.”
Since 2000, rocketing car ownership across Turkey has outstripped capacity to improve roads or build new ones.
In six districts on the European side of Istanbul, including Zeytinburnu, the number of registered vehicles has tripled to 3.6 million in the last 18 years, according to Turkey Data Processing Centre.
Last month, Zeytinburnu’s streets were closed to traffic to mark European Mobility Week. Hundreds of cyclists took part, including many who have only learned since Mr Aydin launched “Healthy Living, Easy Transport” at the end of April.
“The support of the people of Zeytinburnu is unbelievable,” Mr Aydin said. “People have embraced the project and clap when they see me on my bike.”
As well as training novice cyclists, the municipality has also added road signs and markings to raise awareness among motorists, most of whom are unused to sharing lanes with bikes. Forty bike hire points have been installed at public transport hubs around the district.
The promotion of cycling seems an obvious way to alleviate Istanbul’s traffic. According to the INRIX 2017 Global Traffic Scorecard, the city is the 20th most congested in the world, with drivers spending a fifth of their journey-time stuck in jams.
According to the World Health Organisation, Turkey recorded 37.3 road fatalities per 100,000 motor vehicles in 2015, nearly double the European average.
“Our research has found that the most realistic solution to the traffic problem is to open roads for shared use with bicycles,” Mr Aydin said.