Last week I attended a conference in Seoul. After long days of, uh, conferring, I wandered the subways and streets of one of the largest Asian megacities.

For a great walking city, Seoul is a curiously bad walking city. Things are close together, and the side streets are narrow enough to be dominated by pedestrians (see above). But when there’s an arterial, you get something like this:

Yeouido, by the park
Yeouido, by the park. Not a crosswalk to be seen.
I would have been remiss to skip Cheonggyecheon, the famous (in Seattle) site where a stream replaced an elevated freeway. I happened to be there during the Lantern festival, when it was swarming with people.

During the day, with fewer people.
During the day, with fewer people (and away from the lanterns).
It’s a welcome spot of green space in a city with much smaller oversupply of it than Seattle.

Lines Ridden: 1 thru 6, 9, Gyeongchun Line (not depicted above) the Airport express; 3 bus lines.

Fare Structure and Payment: A-. Fares are 1250 Won, or just over a dollar, pretty much across the board, while Korea isn’t that much poorer than the United States. T-Money cards (ORCA equivalents) are available at most convenience stores, and can be used for lots of things besides transit. Unfortunately, those codes must be loaded at stations, using machines that only take cash.

People also pay by phone.

Speed: A. There are lots of stops, but it reasonably fast given that.

Reliability: A+. I never had the sensation that trains stopped due to any kind of congestion. Seoul’s streets are, curiously, not overloaded, so the buses run pretty well.

20161119_085116Frequency and Capacity: B+. I had the great misfortune of staying on Line 9, at a stop that was skipped by every other (express) train. It meant that headways could exceed 10 minutes, unlike other lines. The trains go on forever, and we never had a push-the-people-into-the-door situation. I didn’t use buses extensively, but never experienced a headway more than 15 minutes, and usually about 10.

Scope: A. It goes everywhere, and even has quite long tendrils into the suburbs.

Span of Service: B. 5:30am to midnight every day, for a city that definitely runs beyond that.

Wayfinding: A. Signs were clear and in English. Like Tokyo, Seoul numbers its station exits, which allows attractions to give better directions and make exit from labyrinthine stations more efficient.

Accessibility: B. There were elevators pretty much everywhere, but the stations themselves spread out, with long tunnel excursions to get from one platform to the next.

Safety: A. Seoul is a very safe city.

Stations: B. Again, the stations wouldn’t have to require quite so much walking with a little more design foresight. The saving grace was that those walking spaces were filled with commerce.

Gangnam Station, 6pm
Gangnam Station, 6pm

6 Replies to “Transit Report Card: Seoul”

  1. Looking at the bottom-right corner of the map, getting from a purple-line station to a yellow line station looks like quite a trek. Hopefully, the distance is short enough that one would not ride the subway all the way around (with four transfers!), but simply walk instead.

    1. The 1 (Purple) line is actually nowhere near the yellow line. Those long stretches where lines run along the edge of the map are actually long suburban tendrils that continue to radiate away from the center.

  2. I lived for a year in Seoul, about a 5-minute walk from Gunja Station (intersection of Lines 5 and 7). I rode the subway to work every day and used it to get everywhere; except for when I stayed out too late. I can’t remember a single time we stopped between stations due to a delay of any kind. Service frequency is just insane, and the 10-car full-sized trains can move a ton of people. The interior of the cars are also all laid out in minimalist fashion: Just two inward facing benches and tons and tons of hand straps for the majority left standing. Open gangways. AC in all cars (summers are hot and muggy). Man I loved riding the trains over there…
    The super wide boulevards are inconvenient for pedestrians, but they have allowed for some pretty good BRT implementation. I think they may also have been designed to serve some national defense purpose…?

  3. Does anyone know the population of this transit system’s service area? My subway ride north of Westlake Station gave me a strong feeling that from UW Station opening day, both Seattle’s transit system and Seattle are now on their way to same future as Seoul’s present.

    Couple of things I’m curious about. One, as a US transit advocate being really embarrassed by maintenance condition of BART and DC Metro, I wonder how Seoul is doing repairs-wise, and how it does it.

    But also. Considering Seoul’s location and history, military considerations probably near the top. Same as Stockholm, Sweden, and Helsinki, Finland. Both officially neutral, but also have universal conscription for men.

    Many rural Swedish highways also double as runways. Saabs in nearby barns have rockets, bombs, and cannons as standard factory items.

    Swedish army doctrine, a recruit told me, is that if the Russian army moves into the Baltic, the Swedes have what they need to hold them off until the US Army gets there. Taking the casualties you’d expect.

    You have to compete for the military. Whose Most draftees go to the civil service. Good cure for bureaucratic inertia. Funny that those two patriotic examples of don’t persuade our Congress to bring back the draft. Maybe because motion wouldn’t get a second, and also that author would get recalled.

    Also puzzles me that US transit advocates never claim the defense money that transit rightly deserves. If the Finns, the Swedes, and the Koreans think so, maybe they’ll help us with details. We could also point out that now that freeways are freedom-free due to traffic, maybe the Army will let buses use same lanes as their convoys.

    Fact everybody considers defense and transit as competing interests should be comforting, because it means that no matter how much money defense contractors get, nobody really expects foreign boots on our ground. Hope it’s true, but what have we got to lose by persistently asking?


  4. I had a 12 hour layover in Seoul earlier this year and ventured into the city on the high speed train. I rode the subway a couple stops just to try it out.

    They have signs in English, but it did take me a little while to get oriented. Seoul Station is enormous including a national rail station, several subway stations, and a lot of restaurants and links to shopping centers so finding the path to the line I wanted took a bit of a walk.

    Crossing the big streets is difficult and in some places they come together into a huge intersection of many streets which can take a long time to get around because you have to wait for each long crossing. I was surprised by the lack of traffic as well. I was there on a Saturday and almost wondered if I’d stumbled onto a national holiday or something.

    Some areas seem to be largely closed to cars and have a lot of pedestrian traffic. I walked through one area near City Hall which felt more like a college campus. There were roads leading to parking garages, but cars were very deferential and it was clear that pedestrians had the right of way. The markets are given over to huge crowds with the occasional delivery vehicle crawling through.

    There were also some interesting markets that seemed to have been built directly under the street and had a couple stairs up to the surface every block. You can walk for several blocks past shops or use it as a pedestrian underpass to get across the street above.

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