Jerom Theunissen Photography


November 7-14

City in Context

Seoul is the capital and largest metropolis of South Korea in terms of population. The city is home to 9.8 million people and 25.6 million in the metropolitan area (2018). Following the Korean war in 1953, Seoul and South Korea witnessed rapid economic growth from which the country transformed from a developing to a developed country, also known as the ”Miracle on the Han River.” Population has tripled three times and GDP 330 times over the last fifty years in the city. But with this growth came the need to resolve corresponding side-effects, including unchecked urbanization, historic preservation, traffic congestion, an aging population, and air pollution. Decades of focus on economic growth left more to be desired in terms of long-term sustainability. As an incremental growth future looms in Seoul, the city’s efforts have focused on sustainable development and people-oriented urban planning to optimize efficiency of resources.

Seoul has four different bus categories which are colorfully coded in Blue, Green, Red, and Yellow. Blue buses connect Seoul's suburbs to downtown Seoul. Green buses connect residential areas, subway lines and bus terminals and circulate within a district. Red Buses are express buses for commuters. Yellow Buses circulate in the Central Business District (Downtown area), connecting major tourist, shopping and business areas.

Seoul’s public transport is best-in-class among the cities I have visited. The mode share of Seoul (see right) shows that the majority of the population uses the public transportation system. Extensive rail coverage is thanks to the Seoul Metropolitan Subway network, which consists of 21 lines that interlink city districts and provide connections with the suburbs.  In addition, the bus network is also well-developed and accounts for approximately 27 percent of trips. The two modes are integrated with an "all-in-one" fare system that charges only a basic fare on their transportation card if traveling a 10 km distance (free transfers between different means of transportation). If they are traveling more than 10 km distance, they are charged with an additional fare of 100 won ($0.10) per every 5km on their transportation card. In addition, in order to cope with all of these transportation modes, Seoul's metropolitan government employs several mathematicians to coordinate the subway, bus, and traffic schedules into one timetable.

The map of Seoul Metropolitan Areas extensive rail network. Source: VisitKorea

Seoul has also achieved significant results in public transport efficiency. Progress is driven by the optimization of bus routes and construction of exclusive median bus lanes that increased bus speeds by an average of 30 percent. Development of intelligent transport systems also played a crucial role in optimizing bus reliability by maintaining consistent bus headways for punctuality. The bus management system is driven by a 2008 enhancement of TOPIS, an integrated data center that collects, monitors, and communicates data to Seoulites to enhance,control and manage road traffic. Riders are informed about estimated arrival times of buses both at the station and in mobile applications. The result was increased rider satisfaction levels as a result of improvements in service quality, more even intervals, safer driving, and reduced wait times. 

A schematic detailing the inputs and outputs of Seoul's TOPIS intelligent transportation system. Image source: Seoul Urban Solution Agency

With these developments, I was keen to visit the city to see how transport is playing a role towards a more sustainable Seoul. Urban regeneration through transport infrastructure and people-centered approaches to transportation are trends that are on full display in the city. Looking ahead, ambitious plans are in place to achieve a more sustainable and equitable allocation of space for people in the city by 2030. With this in mind, the Seoul transportation story offers lessons to numerous developing and developed cities around the globe, and I had the good fortune of witnessing these efforts firsthand during my week long visit to the South Korean capital.

Urban Regeneration Using Transport Infrastructure –Cheonggyecheon and Seoullu 7017

While several cities in Asia are addressing rising traffic congestion and other urban transport crises by investing millions of dollars into road and highway construction, Seoul took a completely different approach. Instead of building its way out of congestion,Seoul pursued a new urban transport paradigm that actually removed a 30-year-old, 5-mile-long elevated expressway and replaced it with a park that opened in 2005. Using the concept of reduced demand (the inverse of induced demand), the Cheonggyecheon Stream that once passed through the heart of Seoul was restored. At the same time, Seoul instituted comprehensive bus reforms that aimed to reduce the need to move about the city center by car.

By a number of measures, the restoration of the Cheonggyecheon river into a park was a success. Studies conducted by the Seoul Metropolitan Government show the project contributed to a 15.1% increase in bus ridership and 3.3% in subway ridership in the city from 2003-2008, and led to a decrease of automobiles in the area by 43% in 2006.  From an environmental perspective, the temperature surrounding the restored stream decreased 3.6 °C due to the removal of concrete causing a heat island effect. Although it was criticized during construction for its $900 million cost, it was lauded by the public after inauguration, and has since become a place for Seoulites and tourists to gather and enjoy a ten-kilometer belt of green in the heart of the city.

This same revitalization concepts led to the construction of Seoullo 7017, an elevated garden that was reclaimed from an abandoned highway overpass built in the 1970s. Safety inspections in 2006 deemed the structure unsafe. The city intended to demolish the structure at first, but upon consultation with residents and experts, opted to reprogram the 55-foot-high structure as a public space. Completed in 2017, the Skygarden aims to regenerate and connect places near the main railway station that have been previously fragmented by roads and railway tracks. I took a walk along the elevated garden, surrounded by 254 different species of trees, shrubs and flowers.

From Seoul’s experience, moves towards a more people-oriented city center are possible. The Cheonggyecheon and Seoullu 7017 revitalization projects are symbols and instruments of the prioritization from car to foot traffic. With Cheonggyecheon, traffic engineers warned that demolishing the highway would be a disaster to inner-city traffic. Yet, there was no armageddon, and instead became a haven from the congested Seoul streets.Furthered by Seoullu 7017, Seoul has shown that it is a city where walking and public transport can be both a convenient and relaxing way to get around. 

Seoul’s People-First Approach to Transportation

The past four decades of Seoul’s rapid development saw the quadrupiling of the city’s population while the number of cars increased fiftyfold. Seoul’s pioneering initiatives for public transport and a more livable Seoul stemmed from the recognition of problems of car- and road-centric planning. This harm is quantified by a 2009 estimate that the social cost of traffic congestion costs the city approximately $7 billion each year.What’s more, 26% of trips made in Seoul were by private automobile in 2010, yet accounted for 56% of transport energy consumption. As Seoul looks to the future, the city laid out a forward-looking and comprehensive strategy to shape its urban transport landscape over the coming decades in its Seoul Traffic Vision 2030

  "We dream of a city where citizens can live in comfort 

without having to drive cars" 

- Seoul Metropolitan Government

The plan proposes eleven distinct actions that will go towards achieving the “Triple 30” goals by 2030:

  • Reducing passenger car travel by 30%
  • Reducing average commute time using public transit 30%
  • Increase the ratio green space downtown from 10 to 30% 

The 2030 Vision is the highest level transport plan at the local level and is guided by three principles: people-centered, environmentally conscious, and shared transportation. The plan lays out implementation guidance and indicators which can measure progress towards specific actions.

The transit mall in action at Yonsei-Ro. Image source: The Straits Times

Walking around Seoul during my time made it clear that the city was dramatically rethinking programming of the streets and who they are for. A vision with human and environmental priorities at the center is already being realized. One example is the Yonsei-ro transit mall, located in Seoul’s Sinchon district. The transit mall reduced vehicle travel lanes from four to two, widened sidewalks, and limited access to private automobile traffic.Instead, the 550 meter long street enhanced the speed, timeliness and frequency of public transit while improving the pedestrian environment with street furniture and high safety. A survey conducted after six months showed a 34%reduction in traffic accidents, an 11% increase in bus users, and a 4.2%increase in sales for shops in the local area. In addition, the proportion of citizens satisfied with the transit mall rose from 12% to 70%. These results showed that pedestrian-friendly projects do not adversely affect businesses.Seoul’s prototyping approach— combining localized pilots with rigorous data collection—led to better-informed solutions and helped generate support among multiple stakeholders.

Read more about the Yonsei-ro transit mall’s implementation here

Parting Thoughts

My time in Seoul was eye-opening. It was clear that the city is ahead of the curve when it comes to experimenting with technology with its intelligent transport system, TOPIS. Public transport reforms offered alternatives to get around the city center before the revitalization of the Cheonggyecheon river. Public transport was a seamless experience with an integrated transit card and infrastructure that made transfers between rail and bus easy. Seoul's experience lends solutions to cities that are working towards a car-lite and people-centered future of mobility.

To read more about the history of Seoul’s urban planning, click here.

To read about the role of Seoul metro's as a driver for urban growth, click here.

To read more about Seoul's reforms of bus public transportation in recent years, this article provides excellent background on the changes that were implemented.

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