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Metro meets Tehran
A revolutionary moment in the urban history of Tehran

By Kamran Rastegar
May 10, 2002
The Iranian

How familiar the Tehran highways are to the American suburban commuter; if only a thousand times more anarchic, more insane. For most Tehranis, this is life: traffic, long drives or taxi rides from one part of the city to another, and then back home. The legacy of the urban population explosion, combined with the greedy ambitions of real estate developers -- lacking any clear municipal directive -- has transformed this beautiful mountain-circled parcel of land into an organism with no heart, no head, only many mutilated tentacles, which are crossed in overcrowded roads filled often with uncontained traffic jams.

The traffic that traverses these roads is sometimes beyond comprehension. Few indeed are the people who escape it without nerves jangled, hearts racing, and heads aching. The cloud of pollution, refueled by the constant traffic, does little to assuage the problem -- in the winter it descends like a smothering blanket, pressing tears from the eyes of those unlucky enough to be caught within it, reaching in to invade their lungs and blood. It is not surprising that Tehran's quality of life is seen by most residents to be affected by no issue more than the issue of air pollution.

Also, more so than many things -- the quality of city landscaping, the size of the parks, the cleanliness of the sidewalks -- the issue of transportation defines the social experience of urban living. Each city, in this way, has its own character: think of New York and one envisions its busy streets and clanging subways, London is impossible without the Tube and double-decker buses, Amsterdam has its bicycles, San Franscisco's old trams cross over the hills -- what makes the urban experience is the quality of transportation. I would venture that no engagement with an urban space is free from this concern.

Tehran's Metro has been running trains on the suburban line from Karaj to Tehran for some few years, but it is only recently that the city's urban Metro has begun its service. It now runs two lines: the first on a North-South axis from Mirdamad to Ali Abad (this line will eventually go from Tajrish to Behesht-e Zahra, and on to the new Tehran airport that is to be completed soon), and the second on an East-West axis from the northwestern suburbs to the southeastern districts.

This marks what could possibly be a revolutionary moment in the urban history of Tehran, one that marks the beginning of an important change within the city. Yet, few have really taken account of this. If the projected network of the Metro is completed, Tehran will eventually have 8 lines, running across and around the city, linking this variegated and dispersed urban landscape with fast, clean and cheap transportation for the general public.

On recent trips up and down the new red line, it was clear that many of the riders were first-time users, venturing down the stairs and escalators into a new unexplored region of the city, underground. Given the fact that construction in many stations is as yet ongoing (e.g. several do not have escalators, or were having them installed very recently), and given the fact that there are few printed resources for learning more about the Metro's services, it is not surprising that the Metro platforms and trains are highly social places.

Here, out of confusion about the stops, or a need for more details about the hours of service, strangers communed in small groups, asking each other where a certain station is, what taxi lines are nearby, if the buses run to a certain square from there, and so on. The obtaining of public information is still a largely informal affair -- based largely on a distrust of authority -- so, these conversations were clearly the primary site of transferring knowledge about the city's transportation system.

And it seemed to work, more or less. Questions offered by one person would be quickly answered by one of her or his many fellow riders, and most often the advice appeared helpful. The trickier questions were worked on by the Metro employee, wearing a blue suit, who stood on every platform. The only question he seemed ill equipped to answer was why it is a map and schedule brochure has not yet been printed for riders to take with themselves.

The Metro system has only slowly been entering the consideration and consciousness of many Tehranis. In discussions with northern Tehranis I know, I was sad to note no little resistance to the idea of using the Metro, at least among middle- and upper-class Iranians. These are people who have become accustomed to the car culture that has defined their generation as well as that of their parents.

It is a truism that among them, any young man aspires first to a owning an automobile, and only perhaps later to marriage or moving out of his family's home. The same is possible for many young women, also. For them, the idea of the Metro seemed to conjure up uncomfortable images of cross-class mixing, of overcrowded subway cars, of sexually aggressive young men rubbing up against respectable women, and so on.

Therefore "Is it crowded?" was often the first question I heard in conversations. Given the daunting anarchy of Iranian city driving, the question seemed a bit misplaced -- after all, Tehranis certainly do not live the quiet suburban lives devoid of human contact that so many middle-class Americans do. In Tehran, everywhere, no matter how wealthy one is, one finds the hustle and bustle of humanity, whether they are in cars all around you, or in the shops and sidewalks you walk.

Yet, the idea of crowded subway cars seem somehow exceptionally unpleasant for some I spoke to -- perhaps this is because the car is one of the few private and largely personal spaces many people have in Tehran. To give this up is to give up the last space that is not constantly open to family use or to the intervention of authorities at work or elsewhere.

But riding the trains has its own pleasures. As a lover of public transportation (well-managed and efficient public transportation, I should say) I found the experience of the Metro quite sublime. The trains run on clear schedules, with little sign of delays or technical problems. The stations are immaculately clean, and in many of them a crew of maintenance workers seemed preoccupied full-time with the job of keeping it so.

The tickets are incredibly cheap -- 50 tomans (about 15 cents or so), and the trains run fast. From Mirdamad to Toop-Khaneh square (now officially called Khomeini square) in central Tehran, the trip was a little more than 15 minutes -- for what would likely take about an hour or so by cabs, and 45 minutes or more in traffic if one was driving.

Of the other, less-definable pleasures of the Metro are the quiet and concerted availability of having a group of people to watch. Iranians by nature are not acculturated in the pleasures of looking at each other -- much less so than in many societies do you catch an Iranian of any age or gender really staring, or obviously looking at a passerby. Of course, side glancings, double takes, and other varieties of careful voyeurism are everywhere; people do in the end sneak peeks and more at one another.

But in the Metro one can -- from lack of other options -- look carefully and thoroughly, and also feel oneself being watched, largely in the dispassionate and unencumbered way that people who are sitting in a doctor's waiting room end up taking each other in. A little flirtation, or a meeting of the eyes, is not out of the question. It bears mention that the Metro is not gender segregated (as the buses are) but the first car of each train is reserved for women who choose to ride in a car without men. Undoubtedly more of the same goes on in that car.

However, the greatest impact of the Metro is certainly the effect it has on one's sense of the geography of the city. It once was that a trip from a northern part of town to the city center required planning, will and no little fortitude. It was a venture not taken lightly. A combination of buses and taxis -- if one utilized public transportation -- or a long and trying car ride.

This more or less divided the city into cantons, disassociating the daily life of a northerner from that of someone in the city center and much moreso from someone in the poorer southern areas. To go to the center of the city from the north required a good reason. Almost no one went simply to walk around and see the sights.

This always seemed a shame to me, as the city center is really the only area of town with any sense of history -- albeit even that mostly only dates from the Qajar period. But in comparison to Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo, and Istanbul, Tehran seems pathetically modern, unhistorical, even character-less. The only area that is a slight exception, really, is the city center.

As the Metro now connects the north and northwest to the south and southeast, it thus relocates the life of the city in its historic center. As the Metro expands, and the networks are strengthened, it is possible that the city center -- long in some disrepair and forgotten by many -- will regain some of its cultural and social significance, and bear the economic fruits of this process.

The Tehran Metro is yet at an early stage of its development, but so far holds much promise to transform the social geography of the city. Of course, more materially, it stands to impact the problem of pollution, and calm the tattered nerves of not a few Tehranis as well. If these hopes are achieved, it may go some distance to bringing the natural and historical beauty of the city more to fore, and to make the lives of its residents much more liveable.

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