Tehran is a huge city with a population of 8.8 million and an area seven times bigger than Paris. More than 4 million vehicles are on its streets every day – Iranian officials say that’s six times the city’s capacity. This means heavy traffic, and terrible air pollution: Tehran had only 47 days of clean air in 2017.
The city has for years restricted traffic in two zones in the city centre. The central “definitive” zone is restricted to public transportation, emergency vehicles and private cars, whose owners pay a daily, weekly or annual fee. The daily cost can reach 42,000 tomans (€9) for rush-hour access; a weekly pass is 132,000 tomans (€25).
A wider band around the central zone is called the “odd-even” zone, where traffic is restricted based on the last number of a vehicle’s licence plate. Odd-numbered cars can enter on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday, even-numbered cars on Saturday, Monday and Wednesday. Everyone is free to enter on Friday.
To get around the restrictions, Tehran’s drivers have shown remarkable ingenuity. A video that surfaced on February 27 on Telegram, a messaging app popular in Iran, shows private cars using the emergency lane to speed past heavy traffic in the Niayesh Tunnel. To avoid detection, their drivers have simply raised their trunk lids so the rear license plate cannot be seen – or photographed.
To avoid detection, some drivers have even resorted to using human shields: Arranging for a pedestrian to run behind their cars, hiding the licence plate from view as the car passes in front of a traffic camera. Some Tehranis even make a living as traffic-camera shields, either on foot or on scooter.
One driver, however, raised the bar by installing a batmobile-worthy gadget on his car – mechanical shutters over his license plate that he can open and shut using a button inside the car. Ingenious – but it was not enough … he was caught and his device was shown on state TV.
The city is currently considering expanding traffic restrictions, replacing the two-zone system with three new zones that would be open to all vehicles on a pay-as-you-go basis. The city estimates it will spend 2 trillion tomans ($535 million or €440 million) on new cameras across the city.