I Went to Korea and All I Got Was a Fuller Understanding of Successful Transit Systems


I just got back from Seoul, South Korea. I had a great time thanks for asking. Seoul is arguably the biggest, densest city in the world. Seoul and its closest neighboring city, Inchon, have grown into each other blurring the lines where one metro ends and another begins, so much so that their independent subway systems aren’t independent any more.  Sounds a bit like home here in the Twin Cities where the Green Line connects our sibling cities, but in comparison what we have here at home is kid stuff.

The bike culture doesn’t seem to exist outside athletic speed demons flying along the Han River in lycra. Bicycle infrastructure in Seoul is an unnecessary redundancy that receives such little thought that it’s hard not to laugh when you find a 20 ft. bike lane between two eight inch vertical curbs. The strength of the city’s other systems are the root of this neglect.

I have no end of compliments for their public transit.  Below city streets is a web of subways that make it nearly impossible to get further than a half mile from an access point anywhere in the city limits. At street level, nearly a quarter of traffic on the roads appears to be buses, another quarter is their bright orange taxis, whose rates seem fractional compared to those here at home.  

Oops no curb cuts.

Those three webs working together have turned car ownership from a necessity into pure status symbol pageantry. There are no utilitarian rust bucket beater cars, their equivalent are motorized scooters which, as far as cultural norms go, suffer from no traffic laws, including traffic signals, they’ll split lanes and hop curbs without a thought and without reaction from any other street users.  

Private full-size cars, on the other hand, are universally luxury brands, Mercedes, BMW, and their ilk, every one sparkling clean. Many of these privately owned cars are available for rent by the hour too.  Mercedes don’t come cheap and what better way to cover that lease than to rent that luxury out to someone with a hot date they’re dying to impress.

What does that culture, where Car is not King, mean for Koreans? It means that despite having a population density fourteen times greater than our own, greatly increasing the number of interactions between moving bodies, they suffer fewer traffic fatalities per capita. It means that more people can forgo the financial burden of a private vehicle, redefining the very definition and brutal consequences of poverty.  It means they don’t lose vast tracts of land in the heart of their most vibrant spaces to idle, empty vehicles, and that vibrancy serves to reinforce itself to marvelous effect.  Of course you can have three 7-11’s in a quarter-mile stretch when you have enough customers within a fifteen minute walk to support six.

A heron fishes underneath skyscrapers

If this density sounds suffocating to you, don’t stress. Seoul is thick with places where the city drops away into quiet, green spaces.  There’s the wooded mountain walking paths of Namsan placed smack dab in the middle of the city. Unlike New York’s Central Park, this green rises above the skyline, looking down on it.  Minutes south of that is the enormous Yongsan Park dotted with sculpture, gardens, and museums including the enormous Museum of Korea, a competitor of the Louvre. Then there are the dozens of historical castles and shrines whose walls once kept out invaders now cut off the city noise and bustle, making peace and space an easy thing to access in a city whose density makes that seem impossible on paper.

Forgive me if I sound like I’m working for Seoul’s tourism board, I’m not, though if they got some money for me please leave a comment below.  This whole article and the paragraphs I’ve subjected you to above are just envy in written word.  Seoul is a city with so many incredible challenges facing it, just an absolutely astounding amount of people to handle and they do it incredibly well.  They approach housing and transit with aggressive vigor, they know that their city is a place that people want to be, so they make space for them, and in doing so reap tremendous reward.  Seoul was a blip on the map 70 years ago. The Korean war nearly leveled the city and much of it had to be rebuilt from ash in 1955. Their success and capacity isn’t the result of an ancient system that we could not hope to replicate, it’s just hard work and city leaders who acknowledge the realities of governing a place where people want to be. We can have it here, albeit at a smaller scale, and if I’m being my smug, honest, American self, we can do it better by learning from them.  

Tom Basgen

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