‘Monstrous’ minibuses protested amid public transport controversy on İstanbul’s Princes’ islands / BIANET

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Locals criticize the opposition-led İstanbul Municipality’s “top-down” approach to introduce large minibuses for public transport, which they say are unsuitable for the islands’ narrow streets and do not fit the aesthetic character of the islands

Bianet English, June 21, 2024

Residents of İstanbul’s Princes’ Islands, known as Adalar in Turkish, are pushing back against the introduction of new public transportation minibuses by the İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality. Since their introduction last Saturday, protests have continued, resulting in several detentions. 

The « World Heritage Islands » (Dünya Mirası Adalar) group, which is working towards getting the islands listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, claimed mistreatment, saying that those detained on Saturday were « seriously battered ». Further detentions occurred during another protest on Monday.

Footage from Saturday’s demonstration:

Criticism from local groups stems from concerns that the new minibuses, similar in size to those known as dolmuş in the rest of the city, are unsuitable for the islands’ narrow streets, do not fit the aesthetic character of the islands, and that the opinions of the local community were not considered.

The larger minibuses also pose a safety issue, according to locals, as they could restrict the movement of ambulances and fire trucks on the narrow streets, which are lined with numerous historic wooden buildings susceptible to fire.

A new minibus on a side alley.

« Monstrousbuses »

The municipality had initially introduced these new minibuses, dubbed « monstrousbuses » (azmanbüs) by locals, in May but retracted them following backlash. After a protest in May, municipal officials met with locals and promised to reconsider the decision. However, the same vehicles were reintroduced to traffic a month later. Also, the World Heritage Islands group noted that İstanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu refrained from listening to the locals during his recent visit to the islands.

Approximately 4,000 island residents, nearly 25% of the island population, signed a petition against the deployment of the new minibuses.

Following the detentions on Saturday, the Adalar Foundation wrote to the leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), which controls the İstanbul municipality, requesting intervention. The letter highlighted a significant error in a decision that could “destroy the islands” and an attitude that “disrespects the dignity of citizens and voters.” It called for a revision of the decision and an apology to the islanders.

The Princes’ Islands, located south of the 16-million-strong metropolis, are a group of four islands with a combined population of about 16,000. They are popular destinations, especially during the summer months, for those seeking respite from the city’s noise. On weekends, the population spikes to as high as 60,000, according to the municipality.

Transportation on the islands

For decades, horse-drawn carriages and bicycles were the main modes of transportation on the islands, where motor vehicle use is prohibited except for essential services like police and ambulances. Following the ban on horse-drawn carriages in 2020 to protect animals, electric vehicles were introduced. However, the fate of over 2,000 horses that worked on the islands remains unknown, leading to criticism.

In response to the protests, the municipality defended its actions, stating that the İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality Council had begun public transportation services with 40 electric, license-free, 13-seater vehicles. These vehicles’ license period expired on April 30, 2024, necessitating the introduction of new electric, silent, and eco-friendly minibuses that are required to be registered according to the relevant legislation.

The municipality claimed that those opposing the new minibuses argued there should be no public transportation on the islands and that walking should suffice. However, local groups have not made such statements.

The municipality described the unwanted minibuses as « 100% electric, accessible, silent, with a range of 150 km on a single charge, capable of serving 21 tours on Büyükada without additional charging, and equipped with 12 seats and new-generation safe transportation systems. »

Horses roaming on the Büyükada island in 2019. (Nadire Mater/bianet)

Transportation on the islands has traditionally been provided by horse-drawn carriages for decades. In 2020, with the support of animal rights advocates, carriages were removed in favor of electric vehicles. 

By law, all roads on the islands are considered pedestrian paths. In a new statement on Tuesday, the World Heritage Islands platform once again called for adherence to the legislation.

« The Islands are a piece of nature where you can slow down, breathe plenty of oxygen, calm down, and feel serene, far from the hustle and bustle of the city. All İstanbulites need the Islands. Those visiting the Islands should adhere to laws protecting them and explore the area on foot or by bicycle. Touring the site area with motor vehicles is not transportation; it violates laws, pedestrian rights, and disregards the spirit of the Island, the objections of its residents, » it said. (VK)

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