Ottoman Adaptive Reuse — Old and New Ideas for Transit and Micromobility

Joel Epstein
10 min readAug 30, 2023

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By: Joel Epstein

The Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Blue Mosque), Istanbul.

The goal of this piece is to spark a greater commitment to car-free cities by sharing some observations about what two countries facing existential challenges are doing in the transit and micromobility space.

At this difficult period in history, it is easy to forget the many ways the quality of urban life is being improved by smart planning and the construction of public amenities including transit, parks and bike and pedestrian infrastructure. I saw this again first hand recently in four distinct cities: Istanbul, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and London. I will get to London in a future piece.

Founded around 660 BC as Byzantium, Istanbul is today a mega city where signs of the distinct cultures that have made the region their home over two and a half millennia still define the landscape. With a population of 16 million that swells to 20 million during the work week, Istanbul relies on a robust public transit system that includes subways, light rail, ferries and bus rapid transit (BRT).

The lessons for merely large cities like New York are myriad, and put in perspective the red herring that New York is fated to be a tough place to affordably build transit. If Istanbul can find ways to build and tunnel through a landscape littered with Roman architecture and antiquities, New York can find ways to more cost effectively tunnel through and over the Manhattan schist. It will also have to stop building gold plated stations and focus instead on constructing functional, accessible transit lines and stations that arrive more often with less excessive bling and artistic adornment. Sometimes, aside from the transportation it delivers for the price of a ride, the best thing about the elevated rail, light rail or BRT is the sunset seen from the train or bus window. And that is just fine.

Fourth Century Roman aqueduct. Fatih, Istanbul.

Because of the challenges of getting around a place so big and complicated, Istanbul has made transit a priority and has made significant investments in subways, ferries, light rail, trams and BRTs. The transit lines and extensive ferry system covering both the European and Asian sides of the city along the Sea of Marmara and the Golden Horn make getting around the massive region easy. During a visit earlier this month, I frequented several of the older and newer lines and ferries which let me take in far more of the region than I had seen on previous trips.

Studying transit in Istanbul is made that much more enjoyable by the fact that the city is such a feast for the senses.

Any civilization that can build this can figure out how to cost effectively and environmentally sustainably move 15 million to 20 million people. Sultan Ahmed Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque.

Istanbul also boasts the Tünel, dating from 1875, the oldest underground urban rail line in Istanbul and the world’s second-oldest underground urban rail line after the London Underground. In other words, Istanbul has been at this transit stuff for a while.

The Tünel.

According to the World Resources Institute (WRI), transport accounts for 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. With that figure growing, cities face escalating congestion, air pollution and sprawl, hindering economic growth and exacerbating inequality. In a survey of developing country cities, WRI found up to half of residents could not reach core services and opportunities, such as jobs and education within 60 minutes of travel time.

Integrated transport refers to a multi-modal transport system that expands access to opportunities and services for users while reducing emissions. Istanbul has emphasized these sorts of solution and it doesn’s hurt when a new transit line runs along The Golden Horn with views of the European side of the city.

The new T5 light rail line, free of catenary (overhead wires), along the Fatih side of the Golden Horn boasts comfortable trains with views of the water and skyline of Beyoğlu, Karaköy to the north.
Contrast the spanking new T5 Golden Horn light rail line with the Kadıköy/Moda tram on the Asian side of the city. I will take both!
Yenikapi Metro Station.

Though I speak a mere two words of Turkish, on the whole I found navigating the modern, clean system offering frequent service, easy to use and understand.

Sishane Station in Beyoğlu.

The omnipresent image of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan throughout the city is a constant reminder to Turks and visitors alike, of who is responsible for public amenities like Istanbul’s impressive transit system.

Istanbul straphangers can’t even get away from Erdoğan (shown on the strap) when they ride the train. Istanbul’s M11 Line.
Open gangway cars increase the capacity of trains on the often busy system.

In Istanbul, the subway to Üsküdar and Kadıköy on the Asian side is a good option when time matters or you are tired of the beautiful views from the ferry.

The ferry from Kabataş to Üsküdar.
The ferry from Karaköy to Kadıköy on the Asian side. Karaköy Ferry Terminal.
Üsküdar Metro Station on the Asian side.
Playing Rummikub, a popular game in Istanbul, for train fare in Üsküdar.

Istanbul also inspires with the lesson that subway construction need not cost $2.5 billion dollars a mile. Clean and attractive stations can be built for a lot less.

Üsküdar Metro Station.

According to Google Generative AI, the construction budget for the M11 metro line to Istanbul Airport was €999.8 million ($1.088 billion). The 69 km line is expected to carry 94 million passengers annually. The award winner Istanbul Airport (IST), which opened in 2019, cost an estimated $12 billion.

Entrance to the M11 Line Station in Kağıthane.

The new M11 Line which I rode from Kağıthane, whisks riders from Istanbul to IST. Once again I found myself asking, why don’t we have stuff like this in the U.S.?

Istanbul (IST) Airport.

Call this trip The Former Empire Tour. This summer I also visited Israel which was once part of The British Mandate for Palestine, formerly part of the Ottoman Empire, and so on. Israel is also emerging as a country with excellent urban and interurban transit. Now if it can only avoid a civil war, make peace with the Palestinians and its other neighbors and embrace the tenets of secular democracy.

An early morning train from Ben Gurion Airport to Tel Aviv.

Though Israel was late to the game in reviving or updating its largely Ottoman built rail network, the country is finally moving beyond the extensive bus systems that Israelis have long relied upon.

An Israeli bus stop with real time bus arrival information, Namir Road, Ramat Aviv.

Jerusalem completed the first of its light rail lines over a decade before Tel Aviv but Silicon Wadi is now moving forward with what promises to be a dramatically improved public transit system for the congested region. Haifa in the north is also moving in fits and starts to build more fixed rail transit (In 1959, Haifa opened the Carmelit, a short line underground funicular railway). Sadly, due to construction delays, I missed the opening of the first Tel Aviv light rail line earlier this month.

Future transit, Shuk HaCarmel, Tel Aviv.

Riding Jerusalem light rail is a pleasure and the easy connection with the train from Tel Aviv and Ben Gurion Airport almost makes it worth the decades-long wait. Construction of the Jerusalem Red Line, like everything else in this region sparked no small amount of controversy as the line passes through pre-1967 Israel including Palestinian East Jerusalem. The now crowded line, widely ridden by residents of both sides of the city and thousands of visitors, has become a transportation workhorse in a congested region plagued by short tempered and often armed drivers.

Jerusalem’s uber deep rail station reminds me of the 7 train station at New York’s Hudson Yards.
A crowded train in East Jerusalem, outside the Damascus Gate of Jerusalem’s Old City.
The Red Line on Jaffa Road in West Jerusalem.
Buses bound for Palestinian cities and towns, Nablus Road Terminal, East Jerusalem.

Micromobility in Tel Aviv

With its Mediterranean climate and long waterfront on the Sea, in recent decades, Tel Aviv has transformed itself into a bike and pedestrian friendly city.

Park HaMesila or “Train Track Park ̈ was recently created along a former Ottoman era rail line that ran through what is now Neve Tzedek and Florentin. Park HaMesila is an excellent adaptive reuse urban rails to trails project with pleasant picnic areas, an outdoor gym, children’s playground and good integration with local restaurants and shops. At the other end of the line, Jerusalem boasts Tachana Rishona (The First Station) redevelopment with restaurants and shops at the city’s refurbished 19th century train station. The station which opened in 1892 and closed with the shutting down of the old rail line in 1998 was the last stop on the Jaffa-Jerusalem railway.

Not all of the Ottoman era rail network was deemed worthy of updating. Park HaMesila, Tel Aviv.

Park HaMesila joins a growing network of protected bike paths that make parts of Tel Aviv, a largely flat city, a bike and pedestrian mecca. In general, from a new urbanism standpoint, Tel Aviv gets better and better with more and more public space, bike and scooter infrastructure, a great food and nightlife scene and a pluralistic, tolerant culture. If only the rest of the region was as committed to tolerance and pluralism.

Israel, in general, comes across as a country that can’t figure out whether it is a modern, technologically advanced democracy that wants to make peace with its Palestinian and other neighbors, and its own multicultural and religiously diverse citizens, or a religious shtetl ruled by criminal Mullahs.

The makeover of Kikar Dizengoff has reclaimed as an attractive public space a square long dominated by traffic and a concrete overpass that deprived visitors of views of the neighborhood’s signature Bauhaus architecture.
Getting ready for the weekly judicial reform protest, Tel Aviv.
Biking and scooting in the White City, a Unesco World Heritage site. Tel Aviv.

While I always find systems and strategies to admire when visiting other cities, this summer has been full of unexpected pleasures. London and its exceptional transit system, Transport for London, always deliver, but Turkey and Israel wowed me in unexpected ways.

In the decade or so since I had been in both countries, major strides have been made in expanding their transit systems and micromobility infrastructure. Which made returning to New York and riding Citi Bike from Alphabet City to LaGuardia Airport all the more striking. While I am grateful to NYCDOT and Citi Bike for the expansion of New York’s excellent bike share program to Jackson Heights and East Elmhurst, the ride underscored the fact that we still don’t have a train or true BRT that goes all the way to a spanking new LaGuardia Airport.

Yes, that’s LaGuardia Airport (LGA) in the background! Which begs the question, how is it that Citi Bike can get bikeriders to LGA but the MTA can’t get a train or true BRT built to the busy airport?

Excuses, Excuses, Excuses…

It kind of makes one wonder whether our children or grandchildren will be saying the same thing one day about our failure to find a solution to the crumbling BQE? Or is that the point? Maybe we are waiting for the BQE to collapse so we can organically (adaptively reuse) take back our waterfront like we did when the misguided Westway project along the Hudson was put to bed?

Still, just because the M60 bus from Harlem and the 7 train to the Q70 in Jackson Heights to La Guardia work for me doesn’t mean they work for the millions of others who travel annually through LGA. I am hopeful that the transit signal prioritization on Roosevelt Avenue and Broadway and bus only improvements along the route will reduce travel times on the Q70 route.

Last week, at a new Citi Bike dock on beautifully redesigned 34th Avenue in Jackson Heights, an older woman who saw me taking out a bike asked me to explain how Citi Bike worked. She told me she was raised in a small town in Scotland and had a paper route as a child and used to bike all over town. She said she had a bike of her own and probably wouldn´t ride Citi Bike but she loved that it was happening, expanding to Jackson Heights and elsewhere. She added that we have to do something about all the cars and traffic. Amen.

Perhaps right now, a train to LGA isn’t among the one hundred most pressing issues facing the City and the region. Perhaps it doesn’t even make the top 250 list. Still, our failure to find a way to build public infrastructure that prioritizes transit over cars, clears the air and unclogs our sclerotic streets and highways is a shameful testament to where we are as a city and state.

Enough with the excuses that New York is an old city with engineering challenges that make infrastructure projects difficult and costly to build.

NYC isn’t old. Istanbul is old. Jerusalem is old. We simply act like we are sometimes.

Yours in transit,

Joel

Joel Epstein is a New Yorker and an advocate for public transit, livable cities and public space.

#NYC #Istanbul #TelAviv #Jerusalem #Haifa #Israel #Palestine #Bauhaus #JacksonHeights #Citibike #MTA #LGA #IST #OttomanEmpire #Micromobility #BRT #transit #transport

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