Outbound Project in Turkey: Celeste Gilman and Ali Onuralp Unal

Written by Celeste Gilman, Deputy Director, WSDOT Regional Transit Coordination

Time keeps marching on since my incredible two week trip to Ankara, Turkey in October 2019. These reflections on my trip are more than overdue. I think I have struggled to put into words the profound impact of my experience, for myself and (I hope) those who I met. The people, places, sights, sounds, and tastes are etched into my memory and I think of them almost every day, even as so much in the world has changed over the past few months.

Workshop for municipal staff
Workshop for municipal staff

My story starts in May of 2019 when I was given the opportunity to host Ali Onuralp Ünal, Ankara’s Director of International Projects. He came to Seattle for one month to learn about sustainable transportation, particularly bicycle transportation. Before my boss approached me, I had never heard of the American Councils for International Education or their programs. I was delighted to learn of their work and thrilled to be able to facilitate the sharing of expertise and experiences to help Ankara shift its transportation system in a direction that will improve people’s lives and reduce their contributions to the climate crisis.

Five months later, I traveled for 24 hours across 10 time zones to be an honored guest of the municipality of Ankara. On my first day there, I met with Mayor Mansur Yavas. Mayor Yavas was crystal clear about the importance of putting people first in the transportation system. The enthusiasm and sense of common enterprise of his team was palpable and infectious. Everywhere I went, people expressed their frustration with the car-dominated legacy of the past. The experience of being in Ankara in October 2019, just six months into Mayor Yavas’ first term, was like being in a drought-stricken meadow after the rains had returned and life was rebounding with a staggering vigor. The openness to change, hopefulness, and enthusiasm was impressive.

Visiting the Ankara Technopark
Visiting the Ankara Technopark

My hosts arranged a packed schedule of meetings and presentations. I met with members of parliament, advisors to President Erdogan, the head of the air quality management department, emerging businesses in their Technopark business incubator, non-profit staff, university professors, and many others. I presented at METU and Ankara universities and for city planning and architecture/engineering professional associations. I conducted a day-long workshop for 20 municipal transportation professionals and met with staff from the US Embassy in Ankara. The information I shared distilled more than two decades of my learning, working, andliving sustainable transportation into an hour-long conceptual toolkit that was simple enough to translate across languages. The majority of my presentations and meetings were in Turkish. I had an incredible translator, Timur Tikriti, and we quickly developed a strong partnership.

While this was a work intensive trip and they fully utilized the opportunity of my being in Ankara, hospitality and culture were a defining theme of my trip. I had a whole hosting team. Isa Coskun was my home base and guide extraordinaire. He not only made sure all the logistics were in order for the day’s work, he spent evening after evening showing off the arts, culture, history, and cuisine of Ankara. Ali Onuralp Ünal and his wife also treated us to the opera to see Aida. Mevlude Sahillioglu is the amazing local coordinator of the American Councils for International Education and ensured everything was orchestrated flawlessly and connected me with past fellows and many others. One memorable night we had dinner with a whole group of PFP fellows. I was highly impressed by the accomplishments, thoughtfulness, initiative, and diversity of backgrounds and interests of that illustrious group of young professionals. My husband was able to travel with me on my trip and Mevlude helped connect him with people working in his field of immigration. We joked that he was having his own outbound trip at the same time.

Dropping in on ney lessons
Dropping in on ney lessons

For me professionally, it was incredibly rewarding to be able to share my expertise with such enthusiastic audiences in a place that is hopefully at the outset of a profound transformation. The municipality of Ankara has recently begun construction on its first 54 kilometers of protected bicycle paths to connect seven of the city’s universities and two of the largest industrial areas with their closest Metro stops. The bicycle has been hugely neglected as a mode of transportation in Ankara, and this infrastructure will start to change that. This new investment in bicycling could not be better timed, as cities around the world turn to the bicycle as a safe and sustainable urban transportation solution in times of pandemic and climate crisis. The city also has a highly utilized public transportation system and retains much of its pedestrian oriented form (even if people are too often marginalized by both moving and unoccupied vehicles). An important part of the foundation of sustainable transportation is recognizing, preserving, and building upon the best transportation facilities and services a city already has, and I brought an outsider’s view to help the people of Ankara appreciate the existing strengths of their transportation system.

Towards the end of my visit, we met with staff at the American Embassy. I greatly appreciate their support and enthusiasm. They spoke of the potential for future grants and organizational assistance for continued collaboration. Their support of the municipality’s work is wonderful to see and I would be delighted to continue my involvement as well.

I look forward to someday returning to Ankara to drink tea with my friends and to tour the city by bicycle with my family. Tesekkur ederim to Ali Onuralp Ünal, Isa Coskun, Timur Tikriti, Mevlude Sahillioglu, Demet Hüsrevoğlu, Davron Mirsagatov and Viktorija Sapundzi at the American Councils, the American Embassy, and all the amazing people of Ankara I met on my extraordinary trip.

Turkish coffee and tea at METU university with friends
Turkish coffee and tea at METU university




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