In October, I visited Seoul with a delegation of Chicago Council Emerging Leaders on a Korea Foundation-funded trip led by Karl Friedhoff, the Council’s Korea specialist.
Overview of Seoul
In October, I visited Seoul with a delegation of Chicago Council Emerging Leaders on a Korea Foundation-funded trip led by Karl Friedhoff, the Council's Korea specialist.
While the purpose of the visit was to learn about Korea's politics and society, it also provided a remarkable opportunity to experience transportation in Korea’s largest city, renowned for its gleaming Metro and the Cheonggye Freeway removal.
It took only moments to notice the stark contradictions of Seoul’s transportation system. On one hand, the city boasts world-class public transit. Its metro stands on par with any system, and a recent McKinsey report showed Seoul’s public transit efficiency among the top three global cities surveyed. A planner with Regional Plan Association in New York has called the Metro "quite simply the best I have ever seen."
On the other, Seoul is—according to its own mayor—"addicted to cars.” It has a gargantuan road and highway network and suffers from heavy traffic congestion, poor air quality, and a growing proportion of single-occupant car commuters.
It’s a city with superlative mass transit, yet also dominated by private cars.
With congestion reaching crisis proportions and transportation generating about a quarter of global carbon emissions, cities are looking for ways to move people from cars to more efficient modes. Can building world-class public transit free cities from car dominance?
If we treat Seoul as an instructive example, maybe not. Excellent transit can coax people out of cars, but wide streets and highways can coax them back in. If car-choked cities like Seoul do not address land use, road pricing, and the allocation of street space, gleaming trains and buses are likely to solve only half of the problem.
Seoul’s transportation system developed in phases after World War II, with city leaders first prioritizing cars, then mass transit, then – to a lesser extent – cycling and micromobility.
These phases corresponded to the city leaders’ shifting responses to the city’s mind-boggling population growth. In 1952, during the Korean War, Seoul had 700,000 residents. By 1965, it had 3.8 million, which grew to 6.9 million within ten years. Seoul reached peak size of almost 11 million around 1990. Today, slowing migration and suburban growth in Gyeongi Province has reduced Seoul’s population to about 10 million inhabitants – still a huge city by any standard.
In the 1960s, during the earlier part of this growth, city leaders built out an extensive automotive infrastructure network, including wide roads and urban freeways that bisected the city. But the space inefficiency of a car-oriented transportation system created enormous traffic congestion, and by the early 1970s, with 6 million residents, Seoul began construction on its first Metropolitan Subway line.
Look at the size of this metro system! Image courtesy of Visit Korea.
The backbone of the public transportation system in Seoul is the Metropolitan Subway.
Three separate companies operate the lines: Seoul Metro, a city-owned public corporation; Korail, the Korean national rail company; and Line9, which operates Line 9, a joint entity of Hyundai Rotem and the French joint venture RATP Dev Transdev Asia. The fares and payments are entirely integrated, and to a passenger, it appears as a single system.
The Metro is remarkably expansive for its age, having begun operations in 1974. Since then, it’s grown to an astonishing 23 lines and 727 stations. The service area is broad, spanning the metropolitan region including Incheon and Gyeonggi province, and with dense coverage in Seoul.
As a non-Korean-speaker, I had no trouble buying a ticket or navigating the system. The trains and stations were exceptionally clean and well maintained, and not crowded during our off-peak trips. I never waited more than four minutes for a train to arrive.
A few features stood out. Most of the lines—including the #2 and #7, which I rode—feature platform edge doors, big, glass barriers that prevented waiting passengers from falling (or jumping) into the tracks.
Besides the obvious safety benefits of this system, there’s an efficiency benefit, too: waiting passengers know exactly where the train will stop, and line up in an orderly fashion along the doors before the train pulls in.
Cars are wide—about 11 inches wider than a Chicago L car, 8 inches wider than the London Underground’s “S Stock,” and 6 inches wider than New York’s wide R179 subway cars. On the inside, these few inches make the cars seem unusually spacious.
On-board screens display the next stop (in English) and signal which side doors will open, and the trains seemed to move at relatively high speeds with no delays.
Entrance to the subway system
Seoul uses a distance-based fare system, so you must scan your ticket when you leave as well as enter a station. Tickets cost about $1 for a base fare up to 10 kilometers (about $1), with longer trips costing up to about $1.75. The system does get crowded during rush hour, and many commuters deal with long commutes. But for less than half the cost of a ride on most US and European systems, riders can access an impressively extensive, reliable, and convenient system.
Seoul, like many cities, had a period in which modernist, car-oriented planning was the rule, and built numerous urban freeways and broad avenues through dense districts and along its riverfront. The city’s most infamous urban highway, Chonggyecheon (1976), capped a downtown stream with an elevated highway, which stood for 27 years before being torn down in 2003.
Many avenues in Seoul are exceptionally broad: eight to twelve lanes.
As researchers have long noted, wide roads can create traffic, and Seoul has plenty of wide roads. The Korea Times has called it “traffic hell.” Drivers in suburban Gyeonggi province spend an average of 1.5 hours each day driving to and from work, and the problem continues to worsen. More car trips are being made by solo drivers, and the number of cars registered in Korea has doubled since 2000, even as population has grown slowly.
Traffic in Seoul. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Pedestrian signals along these wide avenues have lengthy waiting times. Crossing such broad streets takes a long time, and features like left turn arrows add to the wait for pedestrians.
This street is so wide as to appear deserted, but it’s not. A large group of pedestrians stands on a corner, and a long line of cars and buses awaits a green light.
But Seoul also boasts a lively pedestrian scene, and sidewalks are wide, well used, and well maintained. Many even have tactile paving, slightly raised sections to guide blind pedestrians using canes. Away from the big avenues, streets are much more appealing for people on foot, and I strolled through many idyllic residential neighborhoods off of the main avenues.
I observed plentiful parking, especially off street. One mall in a very dense area had a 5-story underground parking garage and a digital sign announcing many hundreds of vacant, available parking spaces.
Gwanghwamun in central Seoul. It0's 12 lanes wide, with another six on the other side of the median.
The number of vehicles on Seoul’s streets has contributed—along with coal power plants and factories—to an air quality crisis. Korea has the worst air quality of any OECD nation, and experts say the problem is likely to worsen in the next five years.
Mayor Park Won-soon introduced a program in 2017 to make public transit free on days with low air quality. But the program saw limited success, attracting few drivers onto trains, and air quality remains a problem.
An insider's view of the bus lane.
Although an important part of the transportation system, buses have long been the victim of Seoul's chronic traffic congestion.
One solution has been to build an "Exclusive Median Bus Lane Network." The first was built in 1986; now, the city boasts 218.5km of bus lanes, some of which operate part-time. In addition, a reorganization in the mid-2000s integrated fare payment across the lines and created a system of express and commuter routes, along with feeder and trunk lines—initiatives which planners have praised.
Cycling makes up a small—but apparently growing—part of the Seoul transportation landscape. Seoul introduced a bike-share program in 2015, and now has over 800 stations. I had no trouble finding a station, but could not rent a bike because the program operates entirely in Korean.
Bike station in Seoul
Recently, the city has built a number of unprotected bike lanes, generally along quieter streets. These do not yet appear to form a network, and I saw few cyclists use them. Perhaps this will change as new lanes are built and begin to connect to each other.
We spotted a few cyclists on the busier avenues, who should be commended for their courage. Riding on the sidewalk was far more common, which people did frequently and at slow, courteous speeds.
A bold folding-bike rider with protective gear: a helmet and a face mask.
Seoul’s transportation system is a tale of two cities, with superlative transit matched by super-huge car infrastructure. One can get around very easily without a car, but cars dominate much of streetscape.
To cities seeking strategies to reduce car dependence, Seoul demonstrates that a gleaming Metro and bus lanes may not be enough. Excellent transit is necessary, but so is repurposing space, encouraging sustainable land use, and pricing driving according to its true cost.
Recently, the city has taken some steps in those directions. It demolished several urban freeways, a step away from the auto-centric approach of the past.
But the national government is continuing to invest in roadway expansion, even as it steps up its transit commitments. By 2030, officials recently announced, the country will seek to reduce commute times in its metropolitan areas to 30 minutes by investing simultaneously in high-speed trains and car infrastructure, including underground roads and highways.
For the near future, then, Seoul will continue to serve as a showcase of transportation extremes.