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.

Three stations in one: 16 exits. And you thought Westlake was complex?

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.

Rider Etiquette
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.

On the streets of Seoul, photo by author
On the streets of Seoul, photo by author

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.

17 Replies to “Transit Report Card: Seoul (II)”

  1. We have a ways to go to reach 63% of all trips in the city by transit.
    What key difference do you see for that disparity, and what steps would you apply to Seattle as the new ‘Transit Czar for a Day’.

    1. Seoul has 18 subway lines as opposed to our 3/4 of a line. Having nearly everything one would ever want to do accessible by grade-separated rail might get people to use transit.

      Since that is probably not going to happen in my lifetime, making the bus easier to use would be great for Seattle. As a newcomer to Seattle, I find the buses nearly impossible to figure out and even impossible-er to count on to get me anywhere in a timely fashion. I lived in Seoul a decade ago when signage wasn’t as good and not all stations had English available, and buses didn’t even try for English, but it was still easier to figure out how to get around than Seattle’s bus system.

      1. Oran, I was actually talking about the lack of any destinations indicated on Seattle buses. For example, the 48 just says “Loyal Heights” on the front. It says nothing about where that place is, or where it goes in between. The buses I recall in Seoul had similar information, but also a small route map by the doors to show you the highlights of the places it went.

        Another thing that would be nice for Seattle is a list of major destinations near where the bus goes. In Seoul, if a bus was going to city hall, it said “City Hall” somewhere on the bus to indicate that’s where it went.

        In Seattle, without spending 5-10 minutes on my smartphone (which is, by the way, impossible in the DSTT), it’s kind of hard to figure out how to get from point A to point B.

    2. It would be nearly impossible for Seattle (when I say Seattle in this post, as usual, I mean the economic unit of greater Seattle, not just the incorporated city) to achieve such a high transit mode share by only changing the transit system. The vast majority of Seattle, by both population and land area, was built up around transportation by private car.

      After mass-motorization, it became much less likely, even in places that were built up before that, to have useful amenities within walking distance. Auto-dominance created auto-dependence in a vicious cycle. To break this cycle we have to change the way we grow, the places we accommodate new population. If Seattle wasn’t a growing city it would be stuck with the built environment it has, but since it is a growing city it can become less auto-dependent by building dense, mixed-use infill in places with good transit service.

    3. To be clear, it’s 63% of all motor vehicle trips. Factor in walking and bicycling, it’s probably below 50%. Still a monstrous statistic, though.

      1. OK, 50%, but what’s the big difference? State assistance in massive building programs, low fares, high frequencies, land use, cultural?
        We love our cars because buses are hard to use in a normal daily routine unless you don’t mind trips that take 2-3 times as long or standing in the rain.

      2. @mic: It’s land use every day of the week and twice on Sunday.

        Our land use situation is what it is because of the popularity of private cars, but right now the difference is land use in the sense that a transit system that was effective enough for people to use it for 50% of trips would be impossibly expensive and inefficient.

  2. I just spent a few minutes thinking about the likelihood of Seattle ever allowing commercial activity inside stations. Oh, how I laughed. The bluenoses in this town would have a conniption. They would prefer that there not be commercial activity of any kind even outside the stations.

      1. But, but… Isn’t there a ‘lack of open spaces and plazas’? And farmer’s markets! The one bit of commercial activity so good and moral it’s not even considered commercial anymore (although one could classify it as ‘commercial entertainment’).

        Still Alive a Plaza Concept at Future U-District Station – Seattle Times

        Those jokers wouldn’t know a ‘European-style plaza’ from a sandwich platter. Instead, more of those giant empty swimming pools so that people can feel ‘open’, ‘relieved’, ‘vital’, ‘active’ and ‘connected’.

    1. The restaurant whose owner is featured in “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” is located in a Tokyo subway station.

      Think about that. The man has been declared a living national treasure by his government. His restaurant has a months-long waiting list and serves $100-a-plate dishes. And he does business from a subway station.

      Yet we freak out at the concept of someone selling newspapers in the vast artificial cavern between Nordstrom and Macy’s.

  3. Regarding the complex, mazelike stations, that’s one thing I remember about the New York subway system. There, too, there were so many well-placed wayfinding signs that I do not believe I ever got lost in an NYC subway station, though I was more than once astounded by the complexity of some of the stations.

    1. London’s also got *extremely* good wayfinding (and boy are those stations a tangle).

      Boston’s a little more confusing (which is odd considering the simplicity of the system) but still pretty clear. I think Chicago is pretty clear too.

  4. I’m jealous of many features of their transit system, but one we could easily have if we wanted it is tap-on tap-off. No more strange fare structures. No more charging the same for a short trip as a long commute. Slow wheelchair exiting? Board at the back.

  5. Lee touch on this in his post – Taxis, so I did a bit of math on using more taxis in Seattle/King Co.
    Even though we rank near the top in both the US and World for highest fares at $20/trip, or about $3.50 per mile, it still pencils out to let a robust taxi system flourish in our area.
    Given: Metro Access provides 1.1 mil trips a year at a cost of $58.4 mil, or $50 a trip. Average load factor of the 452 vans available is 1.2 riders. The average cost per passenger mile is $5.82, or double that of the cab. (Accessible cabs are available if there is a demand)
    Now, compare the $58 mil/yr we spend on Access, to the $54 mil/yr we spend to provide ALL the trolley bus service in Seattle to more than 20 mil riders.
    This is the low lying fruit we are wasting transit resources on.
    But why stop there. Look at Black Diamond or Snoqualmie Falls service and compare it to cab rides.

    1. I believe the city has the regulatory power to require all new cabs to be wheelchair-accessible.

      New York City has the same regulatory power, and *has refused to use it because they’re jackasses*. They’ve even gone so far as to require all cab owners to buy a specific model of *non-accessible* cab (the so-called “Taxi of Tommorow”, which people are calling the “Taxi of Yesterday”, since it’s inaccessible and fuel-inefficient) — of course, they then had to make exceptions for accessible cabs, because otherwise it was FAR too blatant an ADA violation.

      It has been pointed out in New York City that if the Taxi and Limousine Commission instead used its powers to require accessible cabs, it would provide better service to the disabled AND cut its paratransit costs.

      It’s something which should be done in every city which has taxi regulation.

Comments are closed.