“Ride a bike in Istanbul? Are you nuts?” David Byrne asks in his 2009 book Bicycle Diaries.
The musician and artist, who since the early 1980s has used a bicycle as his principal means of transportation when at home in New York, takes a folding bike with him when his work takes him to cities around the world. The book is a chronicle of his adventures.
Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, poses particular challenges for a cyclist: narrow, congested streets, steep hills on both sides of the Bosphorus Strait that divides Europe from Asia and lack of a bicycling culture or infrastructure. But a cyclist has at least one advantage.
“The traffic here is pretty chaotic and there are a number of hills,” Byrne writes, “but in recent years the streets have become so congested that on a bike I can get around the central city — in the daytime at least — faster than one can in a car. As in many other places I’m almost the only one on a bike.”
Byrne writes that he suspects that status might be a big reason for the lack of cyclists in Istanbul because “bike riding, in many countries, implies poverty.”
“I rode around Las Vegas and was told that the only other people on bikes there were people who had lost everything, probably through gambling. They’d lost their jobs, family, houses, and, I guess — ultimate insult for an American — their cars. All they had left was a bicycle to get around on,” Byrne writes.
“As cheap cars become available I’m afraid lots of folks in India and China will ditch their bikes as quickly as they can so they to can be elegant modern car drivers.”
But there may be hope for change in such attitudes — at least in Istanbul.
“When people see a bicycle rider on the streets of Istanbul a first thought that often comes to mind is how crazy, insane, extreme or suicidal that person must be,” said the story in the Hurriyet Daily News. “How can anyone survive these mean streets where the odds are stacked against the cyclist?”
But Hasan Cagri, a master mechanic at Aktif Pedal, says grassroots groups are emerging in Istanbul to promote alternative transportation. “Change in the city has begun within these bike advocate groups. They have taken the initiative to show everyone that it is possible to ride a bicycle through the streets of Istanbul.
“Change always begins with small advocate groups increasing the visibility of their causes. People are joining our ranks and we are biking into a bright future.”
I’ve visited Istanbul a couple times over the years, but never ventured to ride a bicycle there. Perhaps the next time that Byrne or I travel to Istanbul we’ll find the mean streets of the Turkish metropolis a bit more friendly to cyclists.