Friday 21 May 2010

Akbil, Istanbul’s smart ticket

Except for the couple of years following the disastrous earthquake that hit Istanbul in the summer of 1999, when it suffered a sizable if only temporary decline in population, in the last twenty years the population of the city straddling the Bosphorus has grown by an average of 600 000 inhabitants per year, and understandingly, managing this growth has been a major problem.

Adding up more than ten million more people means adding up between three to four times the population of Rome, or about twice the population of Sicily, and to a city that was already bigger than Rome twenty years ago. Houses, roads, hospitals, bridges, viaducts, highways and other infrastructures to cater for the needs of all those people had to be built, in some cases even twice as it was necessary to rebuild a big chunk of those due of the damage caused by the earthquake of 1999.

Managing public transport in Istanbul is a huge task, given that while each day there are almost three million private vehicles going around the city, the rest of the over 15 million people living or working in the city are using the mass transit services offered running mainly by the local public transport company, the IETT.

To give an idea of the type of tasks in which the IETT is continuously involved, just over the past five years they have put in operation a fast bus line on a purposely built dedicated lane which is currently carrying one million people a day, they have built under the Bosphorus Straits the undersea rail tunnel Marmaray, the deepest underwater tunnel in the world, which is going to be capable of withstand 150,000 passengers per hour and they have currently managing the construction of 25 km of new underground lines.

The mandate of the IETT is certainly titanic. The major highways that run through Istanbul, the so-called Çevreyollari (“ring roads”) are congested 24 hours a day seven days a week throughout the year. Next to that sort of hell on earth, other major European orbital motorways like the M25 around London or the GRA around Rome are looking like some sort of country road.

IETT must address and resolve problems of an immense scale, such as finding a way to sell daily the tickets for more than six million passengers, which on certain days become more than ten million within the twenty-four hours .

Incredibly, for the public transport system of a city that has more inhabitants than the sum of Milan, Rome, Naples, Turin, Palermo, Florence, Genoa, Bari, Catania, Cagliari and some, all cobbled together, its linchpin can quietly rest in the palm of one hand: the Akbil, Istanbul’s “smart ticket”.

Once upon a time, over fifteen years ago, a group of Turkish engineers working for the IETT adopted a small device, technically an i-button, practically a small chip covered by steel manufactured in the U.S. from what was then called Dallas Semiconductor, and developed a system to use that as a portable rechargeable electronic ticket. It can easily be connected to your key chain, it can be recharged anywhere and it can be used to take all sorts and types of public transport, which in a city that covers 5,000 km2 means virtually every vehicle ever invented by mankind to move on land and sea, and even the cola from the vending machine in the subway.

To use it, the only thing you need is to click the button on a smallish special purpose reader device, obviously installed at the door of all sorts of public transport, hence you will be absolutely sure you have paid the ride, while the computer system of the IETT will care about whatever else, fare rules and everything. There are over ten million Akbil in circulation only in Istanbul, and each day the IETT sells on those at least five million tickets.

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