The Traffic of Istanbul

Turks love to ask me what shocked me most about their country when I first came. It’s a kind of reverse orientalism. They really want me to have assumed they were a country of Arabs, camels, and sand, and then to have seen the error of my ways. For me to react that way would be for the Turks to win one convert in the fight to convince everyone that they are not quite a Middle Eastern country. Usually, the conversation would turn to whether Turkey actually can be counted as a Middle Eastern country. Progressive Turks don’t think so, and I suspect Erdoğan and his friends view themselves as not only separate from the Middle East but also better and deserving of ruling again as a new Ottoman Empire. To me, it’s not that important — the Middle East is a state of mind, imaginary borders created in an effort to lump a whole bunch of different kinds of people together in a rather baseless category.

When I first arrived in Turkey, I expected the language, people, food, lifestyle, culture, and landscape to be different. None of these were that shocking, but I was of course shocked by other things that I hadn’t expected. I remembered reading, in discussions of İstanbul’s failed bid to host the Olympics, descriptions of how the traffic got bad in the city. It seemed logical to me — of course a city of 14 million people would have some problems with congestion. It is true that İstanbul traffic jams can be bad, and rush hour every day is a complete mess. Even the recent military coup was slowed down at least in part by nasty Friday night traffic. However, the city has a great public transit system that is being improved every day as part of the AK Party’s crony capitalism construction campaign. It’s possible to get to places in a fairly timely manner as long as you are prepared to avoid the roads and use the metro and ferries. No, the thing about the traffic that is truly shocking is the manner in which everyone drives. In America, I was taught to drive defensively, always leaving a three second gap between me and the car in front of me. I was told to use my signals always, only honk in emergency situations, make slow, deliberate movements, and I generally am able to assume that everyone else will do more or less the same. (At least, this is true in Colorado and Chicago. I can’t personally speak for the East Coast.) It is true that parking takes me about five minutes, let alone parallel parking, for which I can count the number of times that I’ve successfully completed it on one hand.

In Turkey, all of this is different. The road is a free for all, with everyone vehicle for itself. Rules of the road are a minor suggestion that many people don’t even know. I have never seen police pull people over for a traffic offense, and if they were to start I think they would need to at least double the size of the police force to keep up with the number of violations. Aggressive driving is the only thing that will get you anywhere. A bewildering assortment of cars, bicycles, minibuses, buses, trucks, and the occasional farm or construction equipment somehow share the same roads without any rules. Forget being a pedestrian — you’re in a fight for your life, and no rules apply to you either. It’s full anarchy, with constant horns and cars weaving back and forth. Yet somehow, in a demonstration of order out of chaos, it seems to work. Turkish drivers have a mystical sense of exactly how far the edges of their car extend and where exactly the edge of the road or the edges of the next car over begin, and they have an amazing survival instinct for when someone is encroaching on their space. They seem to merge with their cars, reacting immediately to situations that I would never even have seen coming. Growing up driving in such an aggressive setting, everyone seems to get used to it. My lovely and sweet grammar teacher, a tiny woman with an intense passion for the esoteric forms that make up the Turkish language, drove like a madman and said she enjoyed it. It was a sight to see. Anyone driving American style in Turkey would immediately die, I think. And it really is just Turkey. The moment I crossed the border to Bulgaria, things calmed down so much I couldn’t believe the road had some of the same drivers. As for parking, I’ve never seen people do it quite so well. As one would expect of drivers with such a perfect sense of the edges of their cars, Turkish drivers can park in one try in the spaces so small that a casual foreign observer would assume their car wouldn’t even fit.

My two favorite denizens of Turkish roads are the package delivery guys and the dolmuşes. The package delivery guys are fearless young men on motorbikes with boxes on the back. Truly every business delivers in Turkey. If the business doesn’t have it’s own delivery system, an app called Getir (bring) will bring you anything you might want at any hour of the day. The delivery guys weave through cars, across sidewalks, and down back alleys with a fearlessness that can only come from being a young man tasked with keeping İstanbul running with the strength of his own motorbike. Most do wear helmets, and many wear motorcycle jackets branded with the business they’re delivering for. I’ve seen two woman motorbike delivery people total. It really seems to call for the kind of assured indestructibility that Turkish young men carry as their birthright, and they somehow all seem to cover crazy distances in the city in very short amounts of time. A cartoon in a Turkish humor magazine showed a man saying that his last wish was for a woman to make love to him in the twenty minutes before her brother came to kill him for inadequately explored reasons. The woman agreed but added that her brother was a motorcycle delivery guy.

“My god!” shouted the poor cartoon man. “I only have five minutes in that case. Strip now!”

I suspect that when motorcycle delivery guys grow up, they become dolmuş drivers. The direct translation of dolmuş (pronounced DOLE-moosh) is “filled up”. They are vehicles smaller than buses (exactly what kind of vehicle changes depending on the city and situation) that run set routes much more frequently than buses and can be waved down or made to stop anywhere along the route. In Samsun, the small city where I first lived in Turkey, the dolmuşes were just the ubiquitous Turkish cube cars, colored differently to indicate their different routes and organized by constantly shouting, self-important men with radios at the dolmuş depot on the seaside. In Ankara and İstanbul, the dolmuşes are slightly more corporate, one-third size buses with seats and hand rails inside. As someone who rather likes chaos, I prefer the Samsun dolmuşes, but they all seem to do the same thing, which is to run routes with extraordinary frequency and give an opportunity for some of the most creative driving I’ve seen.

When you board a dolmuş, you squeeze in wherever you can find a spot, sometimes while the dolmuş is still moving slowly. The driver takes off, and whenever you get around to it, you pass money up to the front by handing it to the guy in front of you. The dolmuş driver will weaving through traffic like everyone else on the road is a minor annoyance, but at the same time he (I have never seen a woman drive a dolmuş) will take your money, count out exact change, and hand the money to whoever is sitting nearest to the front. The people in the dolmuş pass the money back, and no matter how many people pass it, I’ve never gotten anything less than exact change in a dolmuş. Meanwhile, the driver, despite driving what is essentially a small bus, will be swerving through traffic, swooping to the side of the road to pick up new passengers, honking, waving, and having entire gestured conversations with fellow dolmuş drivers; and making a sandwich with one hand. All of this is incredibly standard. Most dolmuş drivers are middle aged men with an air of constant impatience; I suspect that it’s also a point of pride for a dolmuşçu (a dolmuş driver) to be able to do as much as possible at the same time and maintain an air that there’s nothing he hasn’t seen before, at least until you try to hand him a 50 or 100-lira note. Then, such a large denomination of money is entirely new to him, and he can’t believe you have the audacity to try to clean him out of all his change. Several times, I have had dolmuşçus refuse my money rather than change a 50 lira note. In all other situations, they have the same air of indestructibility and seen-it-all before as the motorbike delivery guys. I truly believe that the two jobs are generally done one after the other as the Turkish men doing them grow up.

When a good quarter of the drivers on the road are either motorbike guys, dolmuş drivers, or bus drivers (who drive similarly to the dolmuş drivers, despite their vehicles being three or four times the size), I guess Turkish traffic being crazy is not that surprising. Everyone else takes their cues from these guys, turning getting across a city into a game. As a foreigner, I can’t seem to forget that the penalty for losing this game is death, injury, or at least a crash, but the Turkish drivers really do seem to be having a great time. The Turkish traffic game continues to shock me, but I’ve started to appreciate the skill that it requires. I just hope I haven’t taken it too much to heart and can still drive American-style.