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.  

10 thoughts on “I went to Korea and all I got was a Fuller Understanding of Successful Transit Systems

  1. Monica Millsap RasmussenMonica Rasmussen

    Seoul used to have one of the highest pedestrian and traffic death rates. I’ve read more recently that it was 2nd highest, but I don’t know where it ranks today. But, yes, transit is better in most places around the world. What, if anything, did you see that might be particularly useful that MSP could adopt?

    1. Tom BasgenTom Basgen Post author

      Pedestrian Scrambles were probably the most fun for an American over there. All vehicle traffic at a light stops and it’s just foot traffic. Would love to see those around stadiums and maybe even the State Fair.

  2. Graham Widmer

    My experience in Korea is somewhat different. The major cities (Seoul, Busan, Deagu) are absolutely snarled with car traffic. Buses and taxis get caught in the snarl. And while the subways are great, they are often ludicrously overstuffed, particularly in Seoul.

    But my biggest grievance is that many Korean cities are essentially anti-pedestrian and anti-cyclist. Take downtown Busan (서면), which has almost no street-level crosswalks. That forces pedestrians to go down and up stairs to a subway station tunnel at every intersection. It’s exhausting! But even in quieter parts of town, it’s normal for sidewalks to disappear, forcing pedestrians onto the streets.

    On a more optimistic note, I’ve seen a big uptick in interest in cycling in the past few years. Even a Korean fixid gear (픽시) scene!

    1. Tom BasgenTom Basgen Post author

      AH! I wish I had found the fixies. I definitely hear you on the car culture there, it feels like the systems were built, at first, to service cars the best that they could despite the absolute need more efficient modes. Also I cannot Amen enough to the amount of stairs I walked in that country.

  3. Russ Haney

    Is there an alternative universe Seoul that we don’t know about?

    I have lived here for the past 22 years and I can tell you that traffic has gotten worse every year within a 100 mile radius of the city. Koreans love their cars and it is not uncommon to see only one person in a car during the two commuter periods of the day (usually with them texting on their phones at the same time they drive). They have a special love for German cars. In fact there are so many BMW’s that they are called Kangnam Sonata’s. Yes most are usually clean looking due to their using a mop head brush to wipe their cars down, leaving thousands of micro-scratches all over them.

    I do agree that their subway system is very efficient and covers almost the entire region up to 100 miles out. But it can be an unpleasant ride during the commuter periods of the day. It is not a good ride also late at night when all the drunk businessmen head home.

    The buses, taxis, and motorcycles are a hazard at all times. There seems to be no safety regulations for them and they weave in and out of traffic all day with no regard to etiquette. Motorcycles are the worst since they not only weave in and out of stopped traffic but also moving traffic. They drive on the sidewalks, in crosswalks, and have to regard for the people they narrowly miss.

    My biggest complaint about all the cars is there are no parking spaces and so they park in street lanes turning a four lane street into two and sometimes one when they double park. They run through red lights and never stop at stop signs. If you leave them room to squeeze in between you and the car ahead they will do so without turn signals and with an attitude of arrogance.

    On the highways they drive in the far left lane even though it is against the law. You will find driving in the far right “slow” lane to be more efficient. Trucks are underpowered and will clog the lanes to make a 5 minute pass of a slightly slower truck. The GPS knows where every speed camera is so people drive like crazy until they get to one then slow down to only speed up when past them.

    Over the past ten years there has been an effort to clean up the areas around the streams and rivers by making nice parks and paved bike lanes to ride in. This is a very positive thing except the paths are not normally extended into the city. Now if they would just clean up the streams and rivers themselves it would be great improvement and maybe even allow for more water recreation. No one dares swim in the rivers or eat the fish.

    The “enormous Yongsan park” is really the remnants of the old US Army 18 hole golf coarse which has shrunk by 2/3’s for the building of the National Museum. This area is where the US Army has their headquarters and they are slowly moving to the south and eventually the base is to be turned over to the city. But ask any Korean if the city governments plans to make it large park will really happen. They all shake their heads and say the corrupt politicians will find a way to sell it to developers.

    So if the writer of this article could tell the rest of us where this alternative universe Seoul is we would all like to visit it.

  4. Karen Sandness

    After decades of living in and visiting Japan, I visited South Korea for the first time in 2014.

    The Seoul subway is indeed wonderful, but the Tokyo subway is equally good, and where Tokyo has the advantage is in using surface trains for longer distance routes, even though it has buses for shorter runs. Some of the subway lines turn into surface lines as they leave the central city and can take you to the neighboring cities of Kawasaki, Yokohama, and Chiba, and even as far as the academic “new town” of Tsukuba.

    Essentially, the JR commuter trains form the broad outlines of Tokyo’s transit system, with a spider web of subway lines filling in the gaps and spreading out to the suburbs, and buses weaving among the train and subway stations.

    Two different express trains, one operated by the quasi-private JR and one by the private Keisei Electric Railway company, take you to Narita Airport, 40 miles outside the city, in an hour or less.

    I rode buses around Seoul and got caught in traffic jams each time–traffic jams made up largely of buses. The only bus ride that wasn’t frustrating was the one to Incheon Airport, and that was only because it has a dedicated roadway while in the city limits.

    The pervasive use of buses had a further disadvantage: worse air quality in Seoul than in Tokyo. Travelers to Tokyo fifty years ago complained of horrible air pollution, but since then, they have increased the number of subway and train lines and required all taxis to run on natural gas instead of gasoline.

    I will give Seoul credit for tearing down a freeway, unearthing a buried river, and creating the Cheonggyecheon Riverwalk, which stretches for three miles through the center of the city.
    I think of Tokyo as the closest thing to transit heaven.

    Otherwise, I suggest that Tom Basgen make his next Asian trip an exploration of Tokyo.

    1. Russ

      Actually every advantage of the Japanese system you cited is identical here in Korea. Subway system extends on the surface to all the major population areas in the northern half of the country, they also have two types of express trains, the city has a lot of bus only lanes in and around the city, they have a bus lane also on the major highway going south, most buses are alternative fuel, a large fleet of taxis run on LPG, and the system is heavily subsidized to keep costs down and encourage mass transit.

      Having visited Japan from one tip to the other I can say that they are both on the same level of “transit heaven” and hell.

      1. Russ

        PS I will give the advantage to the Japanese as far as driver etiquette. Although I have run into a few angry Japanese kamikaze drivers.

    2. Tom BasgenTom Basgen Post author

      We’re going in 2020 around (but not for) the Olympics. I’ll be sure to keep my eye out for the differences. Thanks!

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