Wander Istanbul at night and probably the worst thing that will happen is that you twist your ankle on a wonky pavement. This may be a mega-city (population around 12 million) but it is a safe one. Only three people per 100,000 are murdered here each year compared to 21 in notoriously dangerous São Paulo. Istanbul’s murder rate is closer to London’s (2.2 per 100,000). Yet something odd is going on. People living in Istanbul are more scared of being attacked than the residents of São Paulo or London. Some 74 per cent say they are afraid of being mugged or physically attacked compared with 47 per cent in Brazil’s financial hub and 38 per cent in the British capital.
There is no single explanation for these figures (produced for the London School of Economics Urban Age conference held in Istanbul this week). But it seems that the city’s character as a fast-changing, so-called “hinge city” a place of transition, with enormous flows of people passing through in search of work has something to do with it.
One effect of this exaggerated fear of being attacked is that Istanbulites love their cars. Vast numbers drive to work even though it can add hours (not to mention stress) to the daily commute (especially if you’re stuck in the daily bottle neck on a bridge over the Bosphorus).
Another statistic 85 per cent of offices are on the European side of the city but 70 per cent of office workers live on the Asian side, according to Orhan Esen, a researcher and city guide. That’s a lot of people crossing the Bosphorus every day to get to work.
“The car is still a status symbol here,” says Haluk Gercek, professor of transport at Istanbul Tech University. “It’s a symbol of freedom. But it’s also about safety. When people get into their SUV, they feel safe.” He warns though that building more bridges, flyovers and highways has never helped decongest a city. It just encourages more people to use their cars.
For this reason, and for the environmental damage it could cause, many oppose the city government’s proposal to build a third bridge linking the eastern and western sides of the city.
So how else can they end the traffic jams? It will be hard to convince the residents of Istanbul to take to their bicycles or walk – there are too many hills for one thing. But the growing pressure to protect the environment and reduce car use means this city will have to find a solution. Maybe if something was done to make people less afraid of the people around them, they might just jump on the nearest tram or ferry.