This is the second and final part of a two-part Transit Report Card series covering Seoul, the capital of South Korea. In Part 2, I’ll explore transit in Seoul from a rider’s perspective and conclude with an overall assessment of the transit system in relation to the city’s urban culture. You can find Part 1 here.
System Design cont.: Wayfinding & Signage
As I alluded to in Part 1, Seoul’s transit system is an overlapping network of frequent services, many of which interconnect at points across the entire metropolitan area. With millions of riders transferring between transit vehicles daily, infrastructure to accommodate these connections is crucial. Given the enormous spatial complexity of its many stations, the city has does an excellent job in wayfinding and signage provision throughout its transit system.
Each subway line is numbered, color-coded, and designated by its terminal stations on wayfinding signs. Connecting stations can be as far as a quarter-mile apart from each other, necessitating a complex labyrinth of connecting underground walkways, many of which act as secondary shopping corridors. I was pleased to find vendors and merchants from street to platform, selling goods ranging from scarves to delimanjoo.
Many subway stations closer-in to Seoul are tortuously complex– station footprints are dotted with multiple points of access and egress. Jongno 3-ga, for example, has 16 different exit and entryways, thanks largely to the interface of three separate lines. As a result, multiple exits/entrances are numbered, each classified with nearby landmarks and destinations on wayfinding signs.
Like many large developed cities, Seoul’s fare system is largely based on its centerpiece RFID smart card, known as T-money. While riders are allowed to use non-rechargeable single-journey cards, fares for rechargeable multiple-journey cards are discounted due to the higher turnover on single-journey cards (which can be refunded after use). Unlike many North American cities, however, Seoul’s fare system also accepts credit cards and smartphones as forms of payment, fare media that still has yet to catch on locally.
Both subway and buses charge distance-based fares– a flat fare for the first 10km, and incremental charges for each additional 5km traveled. As a result, tapping on and off is the norm for buses in addition to subway trains, made possible thanks to RFID readers installed at both the front and rear doors of all buses.
South Korean transit-riding etiquette is broadly indicative of social norms unique to Korean culture– unlike some of its East Asian counterparts, there is a fair bit of tolerance for rudeness. Speaking on phones or with fellow riders is acceptable, assuming conversations are brief and indoor voices are used. And because there is no direct way to say “excuse me” in Korean, physically pushing your way past other riders to deboard without so much as a verbal squeak is commonplace.
Also prevalent on many trains are salespersons, who hop from car to car loudly advertising wares ranging from gloves to radios. From time to time, I also observed various other solicitors, including the homeless, making their rounds on the trains. Generally, though, the vast majority of riders remain preoccupied with phones, personal devices, and newspapers– a sight not too different than what you might expect to see on a suburban commuter route here.
Seoul is an intertwined paradox of two identities: a dense organic fabric of narrow close-in urban growth, and the monumental city of wide boulevards and modern skyscrapers. Instead of being fundamentally in conflict with one another, however, these two faces enjoy a degree of mutualism, each fostered by the city’s sheer density of people and its capacity to move them.
As the choice of 63% of the city’s motor vehicle trips, transit is a lifeline in Seoul, arguably a driver of the city’s intense growth post-1980s and the justification for the Cheonggyecheon’s restoration in 2005. Where transit is less accessible, taxicabs, both plentiful and cheap, are a practical substitute, made more so by the fact that T-money is an accepted form of payment.
If you’re planning on booking a trip to Seoul, study the city and its transit network beforehand. However, while foreigners can easily wind up on wrong buses or lost in subway stations, navigation can be quickly learned if you’re willing to endure a few trial-and-error moments. Luckily, with surrounding mountains, a big river, and multiple landmarks in between, Seoul’s geography is easy enough to acclimate to, even for the most novice of travelers.