Seoul Metro, photo by Flickr user happyfiles

Being accustomed to sub-par transit and an auto-centric North American lifestyle can give way to extreme geekery when visiting other developed nations with old, dense, transit-rich cities.  I’ll have that opportunity over the next three weeks when I pay a visit to South Korea and Taiwan (the place of my family origin).  Once developing countries, both nations have become known for advancements in industry and technology on top of centuries-old cultures.

Many STB writers and readers who have experienced urban life in East Asia have pointed to these places as the sources of their love for cities and transit.  For those who have visited South Korea and Taiwan, in particular, any transit or planning-related sightseeing tips will be valuable in helping make this trip decidedly “academic.”  To be more specific, the bulk of my time will be spent in the Seoul and Taipei metropolitan areas, home to old urban cores and extensive rapid transit networks.

Going off our Transit Report Card series, I’ll debrief my observations and findings upon returning back to the States at the end of the month.

46 Replies to “Transitfanning in the Far East”

  1. Very curious to hear your observations. I lived in Japan for two years and experienced the Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka (great!) transit systems, as well as Kyoto (okay) and Kanazawa (mainly bus-based and worse than Seattle in a number of ways).

    1. Kanazawa is a tiny city, so it makes sense that it would have a crappy transit system.

  2. There’s almost nothing “old” about the density of Seoul. A century ago, it was a significantly less populous city than Seattle.

    If anything, the intense urbanity and developed transit of Seoul are proof that cities can be well-built from scratch in the modern era. Of course, the central role of autocrat Park Chung-hee in South Korea’s economic development has left at least a few questionable artifacts on the physical and cultural landscape.

    1. Nothing “old”? According to Wikipedia:

      In 18 BC, the kingdom of Baekje founded its capital city, Wiryeseong, which is believed to be inside modern-day Seoul. In 1104, King Sukjong of the Goryeo Dynasty built a palace in Seoul, which was then referred to as Namgyeong or “Southern Capital”. Seoul grew into a full-scale city with political significance during this time. In the late 19th century, after hundreds of years of isolation, Seoul opened its gates to foreigners and began to modernize. Seoul became the first city in East Asia to have electricity, trolley cars, water, telephone, and telegraph systems all at the same time. When Imperial Japan annexed the Korean Empire, it utilized Seoul as the colonial capital. While under colonial rule (1910–1945), the city was called Keijō.

      In 1890 Seattle population was 42,837. Seoul was already a quarter of a million people. In 1910 the population in Seoul had declined to 197,000 and Seattle’s had grown 237,194. Declines like that happen when you get conquered by Imperial Japan. By 1930, hardly “modern” as the automobile era hadn’t really taken off and based on 2,000 years of being a city, Seoul’s population already exceeded that of present day Seattle. Of course what population numbers don’t show is how dense the development was.

      1. Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung Palaces would be a good start if your interested in the hundreds of years of history that helped shape the modern city. Seoul was destined to be Korea’s major city. Seattle grew with no past and a frontier mentality. Post WWI and even more post WWII the USA enjoyed the largest gains in middle class wealth. Old world cities OTOH weren’t driven by auto-centric development.

        Corrected link: a quarter of a million people.

      2. No, not the preserved (and ahistorically isolated) artifacts — I am aware that the city has deep roots — but any part of the dense, functioning city that exists in its pre-1930s form or even along its pre-1930s street pattern.

        To the best of my understanding, Seoul is virtually devoid of such places. What you see is a dense — yet entirely modern — work.

      3. What you see is the result of rational development of an ancient city with a destiny known to be greater than a lumber town or airplane factory. Seoul was never ever anything but a dense city that relied on either close proximity or public transportation. The idea that “everyone” could own a car was just never a reality. There may not be anything left of their original trolly network but I’ll wager they never had to abandon rail because the system wasn’t viable. And there weren’t billboards in the 70’s that said will the last person in Seoul please turn out the lights.

      4. I think you’re actually saying exactly what I said five posts ago!

        Seoul is a city that grew densely in the modern era.

        The reasons for this are myriad, but it decidedly cannot be chalked up to the development pattern “being old” the way that London, Istanbul, or Boston tend to be, or the way that Sherwin appeared to be shorthanding it.

      5. The development is “old” in that the city was destined to be a megalopolis for hundreds of years and development has always been constrained by culture and economics to be dense. It’s also lacking much of it’s old form because it was destroyed by the oppressive regime imposed by Japanese occupation over the 1st half of the 20th century.

        Of course the form is going to be different when it’s grown 40X in the same period Seattle has only grown 3X. It also makes a difference that during the 60’s when Seattle was losing population Seoul doubled in size.

        Seattle is close to Anyang in population and coincidentally is also the 15th most populated city in the country. The big difference is Anyang’s proximity to Seoul. It’s interesting to note that all of Anyang’s railroads appear to be based on long commuting or business in Seoul. So it’s not surprising that the Bay Area and Seattle would adopt a commuter rail model when first attempting to restore any semblance of passenger rail. Historically I guess it’s more along the lines of Chicago’s suburban rail origins.

      6. Yes, and I’m sure that Dongdaemun was historically situated in an open park, at the massive intersection of two 8-lane thoroughfares, set off by hundreds of feet from any other structures.

        I already said I wasn’t talking about “preserved (and ahistorically isolated) artifacts”, but about any part of the city that pre-dated the modern era in form or function.

        Here’s an American analogue: the National Park Service tore down essentially all other structures on the Philadelphia blocks where the Continental Congress took place, except for the handful of buildings relevant to that history. As a result, these 5 or 6 square blocks are among the least historic in Center City Philadelphia, bearing no resemblance to the way they looked or functioned when the Founding Fathers roamed them.

        Fortunately for Philly, huge swaths of the city remain in their historic form, and continue to function well (in addition to being incredibly attractive) as a result.

        Seoul, on the other hand, functions well in spite of everything everywhere being incredibly new. I’m pointing this out as a positive example!

        I haven’t a clue why there’s so much resistance to my challenging the false association between “inherently dense” and “inherently old” that was made in the original post!

      7. I agree with you that Seoul doesn’t have a ton of old buildings, but it still has a ton of old streets. I guess I am confused. If you look at the area around Dondaemun, there are a bunch of little side streets and buildings accessible only by ten-foot-wide roads. Those may not be the original buildings, but they are the original (ish) streets.

        Obviously Dongdaemun was part of a wall, and that large street is where the wall used to be, like many other ring-roadways in old cities.

      8. See, I guess I’m under the impression that little of what you’re presuming above is actually true on the ground, in Seoul in particular.

        Those massive 20th-century thoroughfares explicitly do not follow the paths of any old walls that way they do in Paris or Beijing. In fact, a fragment of wall forms a linear park across the street from the Dongdaemun, and the layout of the present surroundings appear to have little to do with it.

        There is also no evidence that the tight street layouts are pre-20th-century holdouts as you presume. The area you point to southeast of the gate, for example, would have been outside the walls and miles from any of the historic built city, most of which is unrecognizable today. There may be pockets of historic layout, but they’re certainly not the defining feature, or what makes the present-day city dense.

        A more likely explanation for Seoul’s density is what Bernie was hinting at: the population explosion, while relatively recent, coincided with (rather than following) the economic explosion. So automobile access couldn’t be presumed until the economic miracle was complete. By which point it was already the ’70s and ’80s, and Seoul was already built as a dense megalopolis.

        Your points are well-taken, Andrew, but again it’s not as simple as “dense=old”.

      9. I don’t think that’s accurate, d.p. When I was in Seoul, I went on a walking tour given by a man who wrote a book called “99 secret places in Seoul” (or something, the book was in korean). He pointed to all kinds of old streets and places that were still there from a long time ago. They are a lot harder to find than they are in say, Paris, but they are still there. If he is to be believed, those big buildings came up around them, and most of the roadway is still in tact.

        I have definitely stayed in very old places, and visited some very old tea shops, etc. These places still exist. Places like this:
        and this$21520-13

        When I get home, I can add some photos and precise names of some of them.

        I am wondering where you got your information from.

      10. I’m pretty sure it was in the course of some reading on Korea’s 20th-century political and economic history, from which Seoul’s urban ecology is fairly inextricable. That Seoul was an ancient city but not an especially large one, that it was largely destroyed by the Korean War, and that it was remade completely and dramatically in the Park Chung-hee era were all discussed.

        I’m actually relieved to hear and see your evidence that there are inhabited areas of the city (and not just a few preserved-in-formaldahyde monuments) that prove exceptions to the modernity of it all.

    2. Sherwin~ Have a great time! That sounds like an incredible opportunity. Drink it to the last drop.

      D.P.~You must be fun at parties.

      1. I also wasn’t trying to give Sherwin a hard time, or in any way to rain on his sure-to-be-amazing trip.

        Just pointing out a problem with a common and inaccurate cause-and-effect shorthand I frequently see used to defend Seattle’s poor choices. Many Asian megalopoles are effectively as young as we are.

    3. The Asian cultural preference for dense cities must have played a part as well. Seattle and Bellevue suburbanized at roughly the same time as Duesseldorf and Seoul were rebuilding and Brasilia was created. Yet Duesseldorf and Seoul stuck to walkability and transit, Brasilia went way off in the low-density direction, and Seattle and Bellevue went “a car in every garage, separation between every house, and no businesses on residential blocks”.

  3. Enjoy! I lived in Seoul about ten years ago, then went back last year. The system had gotten much easier to use with information in English and upgraded with a new line and suicide prevention doors (I don’t know what one would call those, officially). Taipei’s system is far less extensive, but it was nice and easy to use, as well.

  4. I can’t say enough in favor of those walled-off subway tracks. They keep stations clean, bright, and quiet. Many of the walls are covered in ads, which should bring in plenty of ongoing revenue. I think all of our future underground stations should have them.

    1. Agreed. If nothing else to spare the train drivers from the soul-crushing guilt of having some selfish person use them to commit suicide.

    2. Yeah, the Hong Kong MTR has platform doors and advertising displays on the subway wall as well. But I doubt Seattle will ever have the passenger volumes to justify their expense. At least on the MTR, the use of platform doors makes it impossible for the operator to see passengers boarding and alighting. The doors are instead controlled by someone sitting in a booth on the platform. During rush hour, station personnel stand on the platform and meter boarding passengers to prevent someone from trying to force their way into a crush-loaded car and becoming trapped between the doors.

      I do love the MTR though. I know Jarrett Walker was taken aback at the number of transfers required for certain trips, but the fact is that the main lines run so often and stations are configured for cross-platform transfers that making 2 transfers to get where you’re going really isn’t a big deal.

      1. I’m not sure I buy that it’s a non-starter for a city Seattle’s size. We have them at the airport. If a camera’s the issue, permanently mount them inside the station, and either relay it to the train or just have a big dumb monitor outside the train near the driver. The walls and doors themselves can’t cost much.

      2. Well we’re too cheap to have real-time arrival information, so I wouldn’t hold my breath on platform doors.

      3. We do have the benefit of low-level boarding, so it’s much easier to clear the tracks and get back on the platform than it is in cities with high-level boarding like New York.

      4. Photo with this post:

        Am I the only one who thinks the protective wall creates a claustrophobic platform environment?

      5. That’s just the design of the space. Yes, it’s a bit smaller if you remove the track area, but the space wasn’t that big to begin with. It would feel similar at Beacon Hill with a wall, but much different at, say, Westlake where you’d just box out the trains and leave the rest of the space’s volume open.

        Of course that’s just aesthetics – you don’t actually have more room with an open track, it just feels like you do.

  5. Hey Sherwin, as you know from my Facebook page, I am an avid traveler to Asian countries and have experienced every form of transit there. I am sure you are well versed, however if you need any pointers in experiencing either the Korean or Taiwan transportation lines, let me know.

    Please take the HSR from Taipei to Kaohsuing…it’s a nice taste of the rail lines in Korea, Japan and China. Have a great time and take a lot of pictures!! I am jealous…LOL!

  6. I will be interested in the fares. Try to find out how much tax subsidy those systems receive to operate. Unfortunately, the wikipedia site on “farebox recovery ratio” does not list any transit systems in Korea, but the major Asian systems it does list all have farebox recovery ratios of well over 100% — they all make a profit on operations.

    Farebox recovery ratios for some major Asian transit systems:

    Hong Kong (MTR): 149%
    Osaka (Hankyu Railway): 123%
    Osaka (OMBT): 137%
    Taipei (MRT): 119%
    Tokyo Metro: 170%
    Singapore (SMRT): 125%

    I’ll also be interested if you notice any obvious fare evaders, and what the fare enforcement is like, as well as what the penalty is for riding without paying.

    1. Norman, a major reason those systems are able to achieve the farebox recovery ratios they do is because the areas they serve are so consistently dense and multi-use, resulting in high ridership 24 hours a day.

      If you want better farebox recovery from our local transit, support more density and more multi-use, 24-hour-friendly neighborhoods.

      1. Or, you could just not build stupidly expensive transit systems where ridership does not justify it, right?

      2. Voters were never told that Link light rail was being built to “spur development.” And it certainly has not spurred much development whatsoever. There is far more recent development in Ballard, for just one example, than there is along the entire Link light rail line.

        Besides, Link trains are basically at capacity in the peak direction during most of the peak hours, so it is not ridership which is keeping farebox recovery rates so low on Link light rail — it is stupidly expensive operating costs and absurdly low fares.

      3. Link trains are basically at capacity in the peak direction during most of the peak hours, so it is not ridership which is keeping farebox recovery rates so low on Link light rail

        Compare Link with the systems you listed above. Link is at half capacity at peak time/direction (remember, it can operate with 4-car trains) and even more underused the rest of the time. Those systems are packed to (true) capacity in all directions probably 19 hours a day. Fares are only modestly higher, and operating costs are generally considerably higher. The difference isn’t how the system is run; it’s the areas it serves.

        One way you do it is to get rid of the routes and trips that have very low ridership. Right? Like late-night trips that almost nobody uses…

        Or find a way to get more riders to use the trips nobody uses (which do not include all late-night trips).

        Sorry, but there is simply no way to get 100% farebox recovery from HCT without high-density, mixed-use areas all along the line.

      4. Did Norman say Link has high ridership part of the day?

        “Voters were never told that Link light rail was being built to “spur development.””

        “Spurring” development is a loaded question. Link’s primary goal was transportation, but development was a secondary goal. And you can’t separate development that Link caused from development that would have happened anyway. If medium-density housing and pedestrian-friendly commerce is there, rapid transit needs to be there too, whether or not the transit caused the development. Ballard densified without Link, but many of the projects were planned believing the Monorail was about to come, and the eventual coming of Link is a significant factor in how close Ballard grows to its potential. The lack of non-mediocre transit is causing some people to avoid living or shopping in Ballard, and it’s making others insist more heavily on parking spaces than they otherwise would. So that is clearly limiting Ballard, even if it’s not enough to stop or reverse its growth.

    2. You’re looking at the wrong things. The high farebox recovery ratio is due strictly to high ridership. Period. You want to know how to get high ridership?…

      1. Obviously, Sound Transit and Metro don’t know how to get high ridership.

        One way you do it is to get rid of the routes and trips that have very low ridership. Right? Like late-night trips that almost nobody uses…

    3. Don’t most of those transit agencies have real-estate holdings as well? Like development and leasing of station areas?

  7. This hasn’t got anything to do with transit, but I would recommend checking out the DMZ in Korea. It’s a few hour trip outside of Seoul.

  8. Great thread – I look forward to seeing your observations. Never ridden the Seoul system, but those in Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Singapore are works of art. Efficient, fast, uber-clean, and going just about anywhere you want to go. It’s amazing to wait for a train at Kowloon station during the morning rush – trains come every 90 seconds (basically as soon as one leaves, the announcement is already playing that the next train is arriving) and each train is crush-loaded (it’s common to wait 3-4 trains to get on).

    I’ve also ridden the systems in Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, and let’s just say these ones aren’t so great. Both seemed to be under-built and the various lines don’t connect well with each other. They provide a template for the mess that Seattle could have been if we had proceeded with both the monorail and link (disconnected systems, difficult transfers without fare transfers, ugly overhead columns everywhere, etc.).

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