Istanbul residents have welcomed a new round-the-clock weekend subway service that as well as being hugely popular has also sparked debate on how good urban planning can make their city more equal, environmentally friendly and efficient.

The extended service has been used by more than three-quarters of a million passengers since its inauguration in late August, filling the municipality’s coffers with badly-needed revenue.

 “I use the subway every weekend,” said İdil Aydınoğlu, 31, a lawyer. “Going out at night is part of social life. I think this practice is very valuable for including women, LGBTI individuals and people who are socioeconomically disadvantaged in the city’s nightlife.” 

İdil Aydınlıoğlu (Credit: İdil Aydınlıoğlu’s private album)

She added that the service had made people safer – an important public good.

“We used to complain that the subway didn’t run at night,” she added. “Istanbul is a city that’s alive 24 hours a day.” 

The all-night service on weekends and national holidays on several metro lines began on August 30, following a campaign promise by Ekrem İmamoğlu, the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate for mayor. He was sworn in after defeating the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) candidate in two rounds of municipal elections last year.

The 24-hour service has proved enormously popular. The municipality announced that a total of 769,300 passengers had taken night trips on the subway on weekends between August 30 and December 8, with nearly 30,000 people using the service on some evenings.

Istanbul subway announcement board (Credit: Sakine Orman)

Under the AKP’s leadership, the subway ran every day between 6 am and midnight, and the party appears to have not seriously considered the prospect of 24-hour transportation. Critics of the government speculate that the AKP wanted to avoid being seen as encouraging a secular lifestyle that involves staying out late at night and consuming alcohol.

In a statement, the municipality’s press office said it introduced the extended service as part of its commitment to providing international standard services to residents. It added that the city’s income had enjoyed a windfall as a result of the night service, which costs more than the regular service.

The move has also stirred debate more broadly on urban planning in Turkey’s largest city – how its services can influence its identity as a true, modern metropolis, how round-the-clock transport can promote equality by opening up the city to all residents, and other measures the city can take to improve public safety.

The popularity of the service has also highlighted public transport’s potential in offering a sustainable alternative to private cars, making it a realistic solution to alleviate Istanbul’s chronic traffic jams and reduce the city’s carbon footprint. There have been calls for an integrated all-day service that includes other public transport routes, such as the Marmaray underwater line and the metrobus.

Aynur B. (Credit: Sakine Orman)

Aynur, 22, a journalism student, said she frequently uses the subway and its new night service to go to college or meet friends. 

“I’ve lived in Istanbul for almost three years, and ever since I moved here, I thought the subway should run at night,” she said. “This has made my life much easier. Before the subway started night trips, I would have to leave early enough to catch the last one or take a cab home.”

Gökhan Kam (Credit: Gökhan Kam’s private album)

Journalist Gökhan Kam, 30, another frequent user, said that the new service was a boon not just for those enjoying an evening out, but also for employees working at night. 

“Transportation definitely needs to be 24 hours in a city like Istanbul where the streets are alive 24/7,” he said. 

Oktay Kargül – the Istanbul secretary for the Chamber of City Planners (Credit: Oktay Kargül’s private album)

Oktay Karagül is the Istanbul secretary for the Chamber of City Planners, which reports to the Union of Chambers of Turkish Architects and Engineers.  

He agreed that night-time public transport was fundemental to a modern-day city. 

“We’ve always insisted that a city like Istanbul needs to operate 24 hours, because when you say city, it’s not just residential areas,” he said. “Whether with trade, or quality of life, life goes on at night. This is especially true in Istanbul.”

“The fact that you can’t get everywhere in the city after a certain time restricts travel range and decreases quality of life, especially in metropolitan cities that we call ‘cities of the world,’” Karagül continued. 

Most of Istanbul remained off-limits for all except private car owners, reducing urban mobility, Karagül explained. Istanbul’s rail system needed to become more effective and expand to the point where it could serve residents all over the city.

“We need to interpret these numbers as a sign that not just the night subway, but all rail systems relieve the city and that everyone, maybe without even realising it, needs the rail system,” he said. 

In addition, Karagül said the night service helps solve some public safety concerns, especially since Istanbul had insufficient street lighting.

Şükrü Aslan

Şükrü Aslan, a professor of sociology at Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University, said that metro service expansion should be viewed in an urban planning and rights context, arguing that affordable, nonstop public transport is a broad demand. 

“Especially in a city of 16 million, stopping public transportation at midnight or sooner is unacceptable, regardless of the cost and profit,” he said. “In that sense, the decision to have public transportation run for 24 hours is a correct one that needs to be built upon.”

But perhaps the most lasting impact will be in creating a more sustainable means of transportation, especially if expanding public transport leads to better integration of rail and bus networks and urban planning initiatives.

“As Istanbul residents, we need to get rid of our addiction to wheeled and private vehicles,” said Karagül. “The more investment we put into the subway, the more night riders we’ll see.”