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The giant city: How to move through Tehran
Tehran, Iran, July 2012
15,000,000 people live in the metropolitan region of Tehran. The city is huge, it even has two different climates. The northern outskirts are surrounded by high mountains. They are based on about 1,700 meters above sea level and in the summer, the fresh wind cools the heat down. In winter, the numerous ski resorts a few kilometers north of the city. Fifty kilometers south the city borders on a salt desert called Dasht-e Kavir. On in average 1,000 meters the summer is hot, dusty and smoggy. The traffic in Tehran is chaotic. But there seems to be a hidden system in the chaos. To move in this giant city is not easy – but not impossible either.
We are not the only crazy people to cycle through the streets of Tehran. Few other adrenalin junkies are brave enough to cycle the crowded streets.
In Tehran there is no city center. Each neighborhood has its own main street. There are several highways connecting the different neighborhoods. To get from one highway to the other it is often necessary to make a u-turn and then take the first exit. In order to do so cyclists have to cross all lanes – usually there are four to seven of them. Car drivers can easily squeeze their way through. For them, there exist as many lanes as cars fit next to each other on the street. Markings on the road are ignored. We have tried the u-turn adventure once and survived. Ahmet, a nice moped rider, went in front of us to show us the way. “Well, now ride faster and start aligning to your left, we will make a turn soon!” He shouted to us. I looked back at the surprised eyes of about 40 car drivers. When I looked forward again, Ahmet had already crossed two lanes to the left. “Faster?” I shouted back to him, “We use our legs, not an engine!” Roberto and I were cycling on the right shoulder next to each other, but we had no chance. At the last moment we stopped and Ahmed returned to the shoulder. We all faced the terrifying traffic and Ahmet drove on our left side. Another cyclist joined our little group of world-weary adventurists and together we felt like much stronger. Ahmet rolled into the first track. The result was a chorus of horns, but fortunately no accident. So we crossed the road lane by lane always under the protection of the powerful motorbike. The drivers were not too enthusiastic about our project, but they let us survive.
We try to avoid the major highways, but many of them can only be crossed via high foot-bridges. Not too easy to do with a heavily loaded bicycle.
The intersections have traffic lights, but instead of red, yellow and green lights there are usually either yellow flashing lights on major roads or flashing red to indicate a non-priority road. That means that instead of waiting for a green light drivers just squeeze in a little more carefully that usually.
Few crossroads have normal traffic lights as well. Green light stands for go, red light stands for stop and yellow light stands for speed up as fast as you can, it will be red soon.
The metro is my personal favorite of all the public transportations. The track is fixed and the metro will not run any spontaneous diversions. The metro can move fast no matter if there is a traffic jam in the streets. Women can stay in the men’s compartments (but not vice versa). A ticket valid for two trips costs 5,500 Rial. Unlike taxi or sometimes bus tourists do not have to pay double or triple prices. Anyway take care that the change is correct.
In the moment only three lines operate in Tehran (Berlin with its 3.5 Mio habitants offers 10 lines). Line 1, 2 and 4 operate while line 3 is still under construction. Nevertheless its stops are already marked in most of the city maps, some Metro maps and Google maps. Line 5 is an express train, connecting the western suburbs with the underground system.
So there we stood inside the moving metro, acting confused, arguing with each other. We pointed to the various stops in the metro map and looked for “Hossein Abad”. How could we know that this station was part of the non-existing line 3?
There are some city buses. On each bus it is written where exactly it is directed to. So it should be easy to use a bus in Tehran. Well it is – if you speak Farsi and can read the letters as well. I do not have sufficient command of this language (I am able to say hello, thank you and goodbye) and that is why I only enter a city bus if somebody I trust in promises me that this line really moves towards my goal and will stop where I need to get out.
Just as in the metro men and women sit separately in buses. Usually women sit in the rear part of the bus and the men in the front. Only when the bus is driven by a woman, this system is reversed. Payment is made when exiting (should not be more than 2,000 Rial).
Less confusing than the regular buses is the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). The buses follow a precise route and have their own lane in the middle of the road. Entering the bus station costs 2,000 Rial. From there buses stop frequently. The timetable is available on the bus, mostly written bilingual, but sometimes only in Farsi. I could not find a network map yet, to see how the six lines are connected, but I am sure there is one.
The shared taxi is a good way to combine relatively short distances that are not on the subway or BRT system. On the subway stations, squares and other key places some drivers shout out their destination. The taxis stay parked until they are filled with four passengers. If possible, women and men sit separately. There is also the possibility of stopping a filled taxi on the way if there is still enough space in the car. It is not easy to identify a taxi, because also private cars can be used as taxis. Some people earn some extra money taking passengers on their way to work and back. Passengers can get off on the way or at the ultimate destination, but drivers do not detour for single passengers. The price depends on the length of the trip. The minimum is 5,000 Rial. Even for a long ride, we have never paid more than 15,000.
Without knowing the city it is not easy to move with shared taxi. In our first days in the city we did not have a map and never knew whether the desired target was on the way or not. Of course people told us that it was and for a relatively short way we were told to enter five different shared taxis. So if you are not familiar with asking for the right place you are running the risk of being placed in a private taxi.
We try to avoid private taxis if possible, even though they are a great way to lose fear of the chaotic traffic. Drivers go fast – really fast. No matter how jammed the streets are. If you have survived a horrifying ride, you feel as if you could survive just anything.
The prices vary to the highest degree. We do not speak Farsi, and for a ride from the center of the city to the north we were asked to the solid price of 200,000 Rial. That is 50,000 more than a bus ticket from about 600 kilometers away in Tabriz to Tehran. Good thing that we always ask for the price before we enter any vehicle. For shorter distances they wanted to charge us between 70,000-100,000 Rial. Of course we did not accept any of those cutthroats and denied the offer politely to keep searching for other ways of transportation.
In day and night Tehran is jammed. Except for major highways, there are many sidewalks to use. When it comes to changing the side of the street we were a bit squeamish in the beginning. But if you wait until there is no more traffic you will grow a long beard in the meantime. Most roads have more than one track, and we have learned that it is sufficient to find a small gap in the first track. Then we wait in the middle of both lanes until we spot a gap in the second lane and so on. The drivers are accustomed to pedestrians, moped riders, crazy taxi drivers and squeezing cars they have to brake for. We learned: the more selfconfident we walk, the better the chances to find a lot of gaps and reach the other side alive. Often it is also a good idea to look for foot-bridges that lead safely to the other side.
To navigate, a city map is absolutely essential. After four long days, I finally found an English map in a bookstore in the city. And suddenly the orientation was so easy! It felt as if I had cooked for days in the dark and suddenly someone switched on the lights and I could see where I had been wandering all the time and what a mess I have made.