I’m continuing STB’s longstanding tradition of the Transit Report Card series, where a writer will review the transit and land use picture of another city after a visit. I’m pleased to be kicking off the return of the series by thoroughly reviewing Seoul, South Korea. Instead of assigning letter grades, I’ve opted to focus on in-depth observation and qualitative analysis. You’ll also notice that I’ve deviated from the original subheadings in favor of new ones, which more appropriately classify the bits and pieces of my review.
Because the transit system is so vast, I’ll take the liberty of breaking up this report card into two parts, the first of which will cover the city’s planning background, and a general overview of the system development and design. Part 2 will focus more on the rider perspective and cover things like fares, passenger amenities, local transit etiquette, etc.
Seoul is the current capital of the Republic of Korea, a technologically advanced and highly industrialized country that experienced the vast majority of its economic growth after the Korean War. Similarly, much of Seoul’s current urban landscape was shaped by a rapid postwar rebuilding effort– as such, most of the metropolitan density is relatively new, built between the 1960s and 1980s. However, because there was no Korean equivalent of a federal postwar highways and suburbanization investment, many of Seoul’s “suburbs” are comprised of dense high-rise apartments that surround commercial cores and subway stations.
As is the case with many Asian megacities, however, there is a distinct separation of uses along public right-of-ways, particularly between pedestrians and vehicular traffic, which are perceived as conflicting uses. Contrary to more western planning notions of shared streets and integrated urban design, Seoul features extraordinarily wide arterials (up to ten lanes) and designed segregation of pedestrians, who are accommodated by wide sidewalks and underground grade-separated crossings. As a result, pedestrians do not have the right-of-way and must yield to vehicles before entering the roadway.
Seoul boasts the second-highest subway ridership in the world, behind only Tokyo. The metro’s system topology is semi-radial out to the peripheral cities but produces a connective network effect within Seoul proper since there isn’t just one dominant central business district, as is the case in most American cities. As such, the system forces connections and transfers, the penalties from which are allayed by very frequent headways and generally well-marked connecting walkways.
The Seoul metropolitan subway system is similar to many of its worldwide counterparts in that many of its stations are named after districts and landmarks, rather than streets (with the exception of notable major avenues that run along certain subway lines). This is largely because there is no numbered street grid, which is a distinctly North American phenomenon. Seoul’s street geometry is irregular and carved, based on older development patterns that predate the subway and the modern city.
Like many other systems worldwide, the system is largely underground within the central city and elevated as you radiate out toward the outer-ring cities. While I spent proportionally more time riding the metro, I found Seoul’s buses to be equally valuable to the system, run largely along an arterial-based network primarily for anywhere-to-anywhere travel not viable on the subway, and secondarily for feeding train connections.
Unlike North American transit agencies that have diverse and varied bus fleets, most buses in Seoul are non-articulated 12-meter long (apprx. 40 feet) coaches powered by compressed natural gas. In lieu of printed schedules, many bus stops feature line maps instead, which identify destinations down to the stop-level. Line maps are also posted inside bus interiors, indicating that coach assignments are made by route, which eliminates the flexibility of interchanging and interlining coaches between multiple routes.
Passenger capacity is also a major consideration in vehicle planning, given the high loads that the system has to accommodate. One-seat configurations on buses and side-facing bench seating on the subway allow for more standing room. Instead of handrails alone, all transit vehicles are equipped with plastic hand straps, which are easier to hold and clean than the nylon straps that are commonplace on Metro buses.
Nonetheless, capacity constraints exist through the system, aboard vehicles and at stations alike. Many center-platform stations along the older subway lines are plagued by bottlenecks that often occur due to minimal space between the stairway walls and the platform edges. The situation has been partially exacerbated by the installation of platform gates at certain stations, which effectively reduces the space available for passenger waiting.
Such a flaw is evidence that the system’s design carries many implications for its millions of daily riders. As a result, there’s still much more to cover from the perspective of the rider, like wayfinding, passenger etiquette, riding experience, and more. These are all observations which I’ll defer to Part 2 of the report card, so stay tuned!