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Small bike shop cultivates cycling culture in Istanbul

ISTANBUL - Hürriyet Daily News | 3/7/2010 12:00:00 AM | LUIS GALLO

Littered with potholes and crowded with traffic, Istanbul’s streets are far from the ideal surface for traveling by bicycle. On the Anatolian side, however, a small bike shop is thriving near on of the city’s few high-quality bike paths and brewing a culture of activist cyclists who are looking to raise awareness of the plight of riders in Turkey’s largest city

Against all odds, Istanbul’s biking community is growing and the most visible evidence is the success of a bike shop that has become a hub for riders on the Fenerbahçe-Pendik bicycle path.

When people see a bicycle rider on the streets of Istanbul a first thought that often comes to mind is how crazy, insane, extreme or suicidal that person must be. How can anyone survive these mean streets where the odds are stacked against the cyclist?

But Hasan Çağri, a mechanical engineer and master mechanic at Aktif Pedal on the city’s Anatolian side, holds quite the opposite view. He has been a mountain biker for eight years and is one of the rare bicycle activists in the city. The bike shop where he works has become a key venue for Istanbul’s cycling community and attracts many bikers who take advantage of the long bike path by the water.

“I ride because it’s healthy, better for the environment, I save money and mostly because it’s fun,” he said, adding that he has seen people sitting alone in their cars stuck in traffic grow frustrated and go into episodes of road rage as he pedals passed enjoying the exercise, fresh air and heavy dose of adrenaline.

Grass roots groups are emerging in Istanbul and are organizing to raise visibility of the alternative transportation movement, said Çağri. “Change in the city has begun within these bike advocate groups. They have taken the initiative to show everyone that it is possible to ride a bicycle through the streets of Istanbul.”

He said the most successful campaign by bikers was convincing the city to build the Fenerbahçe-Pendik bicycle path and now the most active group is Critical Mass (criticalmassistanbul.org), whose membership in Istanbul recently surpassed 100. Critical Mass was founded in 1992 in San Francisco and has spread to over 300 cities. It is a gathering of bikers on the last Saturday of each month. They take to the street at a prearranged location to raise awareness of their everyday presence.

“Bike riding is important not only for Istanbul, but for all dense, crowded cities,” Çağri said. “Hills to a bicycle rider are not important. They are just an excuse for others. Look at San Francisco.”

As a lone soldier at the 2010 Motoplus Expo for Motorcycles, Bicycles and Accessories recently, Çağri was representing one of only two bicycle stands among the hundreds at the exhibition. Still, he said he is certain that Istanbul is being changed by progressive people who ride a bike frequently or even commute to work by bike on a daily basis. He said these riders are giving Istabul residents a lesson or two about alternative healthier sustainable urban environments.

“I want everyone to know that Istanbul is changing,” Çağri said. “I want people to get together, ride, join groups, build communities and create consciousness. Istanbul might be taking baby steps toward offering an environmentally sustainable approach to transportation, but at least it’s heading in the right direction.”

[HH] Car vs bike

Çağri said there is no civic culture on the streets and the self-centered individualism of drivers is going to have to be reversed before biking can really accelerate in Istanbul. “They choose not to notice us, and when they do see us on the road they don’t consider us as a vehicle, as it might happen with a motorcycle. They don’t see us as fellow humans like them. In fact, they don’t even see other car drivers as fellow humans either.”

He said the system is at least partly to blame and that there needs to be a sense of community, citizenship and stewardship on the streets. “There are so many uneducated people lacking civic courtesy. It is too easy to pass a driving exam in Turkey and there needs to be more awareness and visibility of biking and of bikers.”

He also said cars often invade the small gains that Istanbul bikers have made. “Cars use our few bike lanes for parking, they only think about themselves. Drivers monopolize ownership of the road and the city’s lack of infrastructure for non-motorized transport perpetuates these attitudes among drivers.”

[HH] Bicycle Scene

Çağri said the mountain bike is the most common in the city because of the condition of the roads. In other cities, road bikes are more popular because there is better bicycle infrastructure and better roads.

“Istanbul is working on it, slowly slowly,” Çağri said. “The Fenerbahçe-Pendik bicycle path is a great success and we are seeing more traffic everyday and more people visiting our shop every week.”

He said sales of customized road bikes are growing the fastest, including for the so-called fixed-gear bike so commonly seen in Brooklyn, Milan, Seattle and Toronto.

“I know 10 people who ride ‘fixies’ and the trend in growing,” Çağri said.

A fixie is a bike that has no freewheel, meaning it cannot coast because the pedals are always in motion when the bicycle is moving. This allows a cyclist to maximize friction and control over speed and stop without using a brake.

“But I am a single-gear rider. Look at my tattoo, it says single gear. I am proud of that,” Çağri said.

Outside of Istanbul, the most popular cities for bikers are Konya, Adana and Gaziantep. “You see an emerging bike culture in these places,” Çağri said. Also, on March 7 the Mediterranean city of Antalya hosted the annual meeting to the European Cycling Association.

Support for bicycling always comes from the grassroots and the seeds are sown in Turkey, now the authorities just need to cultivate the people’s initiatives, Çağri said. “Change always begins with small advocate groups increasing the visibility of their causes. People are joining our ranks and we are biking into a bright future.”

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