On most of the city's roadways, however, it hardly takes an official holiday to bring traffic to a dead stop. The head of a major İstanbul Municipality-run transportation company acknowledged as much over the weekend, telling the press that traffic congestion costs the city a total of TL 5 billion ($2.7 billion) annually.
Kasım Kutlu, head of İstanbul Transportation, Communication and Securities Technologies Ltd., based his comments on a recent study by the İstanbul Municipality that suggests that the millions of wasted work hours and gas spent on idling engines make for a hefty $2.7 billion annually.
The report nonetheless states that "personal car ownership [in İstanbul] is in fact far lower than developed nations," Kutlu said, arguing that the future of the city is tied to how well the municipality develops public transportation infrastructure to ease congestion on the roads. The city's traffic problems might be much worse, the report suggests, given that only 15 percent of respondents to a city-wide municipal poll declared that they use personal vehicles regularly when commuting.
Another 35 percent of respondents said they use the bus, while 7 percent primarily use rail or ferry. The remaining 43 percent of respondents said they typically use the "footway," a Turkish euphemism for walking rather than taking to the road. A survey earlier this year by the Turkish Statistics Institute (TurkStat) estimated that 225 people out of every 1,000 in the city own cars, far lower than the 450 out of 1,000 for greater Europe.
"That means that of the commuters who are on the roadways, 70 percent are using public transportation," Kutlu said of the low level of car ownership. The popularity of public transportation in turn puts to shame cities elsewhere in Europe and the US -- in London 41 percent of commuters used public transit in 2009, 52 percent in New York in 2009 and just 10 percent in Los Angeles in 2006.
That figure is nevertheless little comfort to the millions of commuters who endure the city's notorious traffic jams every day. In June, the Russian search engine Yandex, which uses smartphone data to generate a map of city-wide traffic conditions, reported last year that rush-hour traffic jams typically clog a total of 1,100 kilometers worth of roadways -- over a fourth of the 4,809 kilometers of main roads tracked by the company.
In September, İstanbul Mayor Kadir Topbaş boldly proclaimed that years of poor urban planning would largely be fixed by 2016, when the city will have completed a series of rail and subway systems to ease road clutter. The municipality hailed the recent opening of a $1.6 billion, 1.5-million-commuter-a-day capacity subway line between the Asian districts of Kadıköy and Kartal as a key development in solving the traffic problem. City officials have also said a soon-to-be-opened subway tunnel between Europe and Asia will help ease road traffic.
The city nonetheless insisted that it will also expand İstanbul's road network, a project which centers on the construction of a third bridge over the Bosporus. Environmental advocates and urban planners have meanwhile opposed the project, saying the future of transportation rests in more efficient public transit.