hanyang univ. at ansan
Hanyang University at Ansan, Line 4

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.

System Overview
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.

System Design

Line maps at a Seoul bus stop
Line maps at a Seoul bus stop

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!

22 Replies to “Transit Report Card: Seoul (I)”

  1. For those unfamiliar, it’s probably worth noting the size of Seoul. It has a population of 10.5 million, a metro population of 23.5 million, and the city has a density of 45,000 people per square mile.

      1. Paris, the city, is over 50,000/sq-mi. But I suspect urban area and metro area Seoul would have greater density. Paris’ metro area is half the population of Seoul’s.

      2. Yeah, Paris has the highest-density city proper in the first world, though as Bernie points out, that covers only the central 2.2 million in an urbanized area of 10-12 million.

        That Seoul sustains such density over an entire 10.5-million-strong municipality is arguably more impressive.

        It should be noted that the “greater Seoul” megalopolis from which the 23.5-million figure derives includes Incheon, Suwon, and other very large independent cities that have much more of an independent identity than anything in the Île-de-France, even if they are economically interdependent with Seoul.

      1. My bad, I mis-read the google search page for “North Korea”:

        Capital: Pyongyang
        Currency: North Korean won
        Population: 24,451,285 (2011) World Bank

        24 million is the entire population of the country. Interesting link on the origins of the Pyongyang Metro

        Built to link secret underground military facilities… There is evidence that it includes secret government-only lines

        Now we know why the cost per mile for Link appeared to be so high :=

  2. Great write up, Sherwin! Looking forward to Part II. I spent a year living in Seoul from 2008-2009 and still can’t stop talking about how incredible that place is.

    The scale is simply epic. Those massive arterials, the “forests” of 20+ story apartment complexes as far as you can see, the subway stations that move 1 million+ passengers/day.

    And yet Seoul also has this small scale: the individual carts on the sidewalk with seasonal snacks and treats. The uniformed ladies pushing refrigerated dairy carts with flavored milk and yogurt drinks. The tiny trucks crawling through neighborhoods selling vegetables and live seafood out of saltwater tanks.

    Seoul seems to be either gigantic or personal. There’s almost nothing in the middle.

    1. I love Seoul too. It’s amazing how Tokyo and Seoul both can be so dense/crowded but at the same time feel so livable. Both are amazing places.

  3. I like the idea of having individual line maps readily available for each bus line. I’ve always found them easier to understand, especially if I’m new to a city.

    I imagine that may be one of the several conscious/subconscious reasons that people who won’t take buses will take rail. If nothing else, it takes less time to figure out a city’s mass transit rail (by using a user-friendly map) than it does to figure out the bus system (where maps are either nonexistent or overloaded with lines).

    Mind you, rail has an easier time making system maps easy-to-interpret, with few rail stops compared to the immense number of bus stops. But there’s probably a grain of validity to the point nonetheless. A map, even for individual lines, has remarkable power.

    1. I agree, and I dispute Sherwin’s assertion that

      line maps…posted inside bus interiors, indicating that coach assignments are made by route, which eliminates the flexibility of interchanging and interlining coaches between multiple routes

      should be considered an liability in any way.

      Route-assigned vehicles with permanent interiors maps are emblematic of a system so functional, so fine-tuned, so efficient that massive revisions won’t be necessary anytime soon.

      No doubt these “locked” routes have very high frequencies and even higher riderships, and constituencies that have come to value them as integral to a painless multi-modal journey in a way that KC Metro’s convoluted route-tangle pointedly is not.

      No matter what the anti-mass-transit talking points would have you believe, the so-called “flexibility” of American city buses is not a positive attribute in any way. Thanks to “flexibility”, it is all too easy to send transit passengers on time-sucking detours for a day (parade) or for months (construction), with little notice. It is all too easy to introduce/maintain service quirks that wouldn’t pass the smell test if they had to be inscribed in linear-map form. And while the agency may fiddle with through-routes and core-area service patterns, even the worst arbitrary alignments may find themselves, by inertia or by politics, impervious to the productive restructuring that “flexibility” purports to enable.

      Seattle has exactly three bus routes with interior line maps: RapidRides A, B, and C/D. These are the lines that are expected to evoke permanence, for better or for worse, and that may eventually garner the political will to tweak for better results.

      It would not surprise me to find that every single fixed-line-mapped Seoul bus boasted better frequency, better ridership, and better reliability than any of our three examples.

      1. The NYC subway on its numbered lines not only has a map inside, but a row of lights that go off as each station is passed. That would be even harder to move to another line temporarily. I guess they have enough redundant trains for each line it doesn’t matter or something. I may have seen the row of lights somewhere else too but I can’t quite remember.

      2. When you get to the service volumes New York has, the likelihood of having the need (or the physical ability) to shuffle equipment around on a regular basis becomes vanishingly small. As with the high-demand Seoul buses, this is a sign of success and not a weakness.

        Of course, in some places rolling stock is not interchangeable at all. The Canada Line and the earlier Skytrains work on different technologies, I believe. Boston’s four color-identified subways each have entirely different dimensions and specifications, thanks to their individual histories as a streetcar pre-metro, an underwater streetcar converted to dual-powered and necessarily short-statured subway, an elevated that ran down some skinny streets, and an intentionally wide-bodied high-capacity underground.

  4. Worth mentioning that RapidRide (and the new Orions, I believe) have plastic straps instead of nylon. They’re unfortunately less comfortable to hold.

    1. Nylon is a plastic (polyamide). What kind of plastic are you (and Sherwin) talking about? Polyethylene? Polypropylene? Polyester? PVC? Rubber? Shellac?

      Ok, the last one is just me being an a-hole. The point is “plastic” is not a meaningful designation here.

  5. I remember the communal book shelfs in the subway stations and the racks of free, sponsored umbrellas (“Please return after use”).
    Also, department store shuttle buses.

  6. Would love to read other peoples’ opinion on the Singapore MRT and bus system. I’ve been there a few times but am so enamored of it that I definitely could not be impartial.

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