|Metro meets Tehran
A revolutionary moment in the urban history of Tehran
By Kamran Rastegar
May 10, 2002
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
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.