Field Notes on Seoul’s Public Transportation System

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04/15/19. 14:15. P15

/Field Notes on Seoul’s Public Transportation System/

/Category: Digital Technology/

/Guide Question: Are there digital technologies that could solve problems in your host country? How could these technologies be implemented?/

South Korea is pretty high-tech by itself with global companies such as Samsung, LG, Naver, and Kakao as forerunners of the country. In fact, in some respects, South Korea trumps the United States, with the latter just barely following Korea. For instance, it is very easy to get internet access as Wi-Fi is almost everywhere – even in buses and subways! There are VR cafes where people can play various VR games, and PC cafes that are a gamer’s paradise.We also have 5G and the government recently announced that it plans to make 5G public by 2020. Just last month, Hanyang University in Seoul successfully finished testing a self-driving car ( According to the report, it drove about eight kilometers, had no problems changing lanes, swerving, and it even followed the speed limit! This was possible because of the completed development of the 5G network. The speed of this network allowed the car to drive and respond to real time data coming from installed sensors. Online shopping has been a thriving business with shipping taking only 2-4 days (even before Amazon’s arrival in the U.S.), while restaurants and food delivery apps can deliver almost anywhere (even before the arrival of Postmate, UberEats, or DoorDash in the U.S.). Thus, instead of focusing on what South Korea needs from the U.S., I would like to feature something that I really admire about Korea that the U.S. can benefit from, its public transportation system.

This hits close to home because I realized how much a good public transportation system has made my life so much easier. I don’t really understand why for such a rich country as the United States, their public transportation is significantly lacking. In the San Francisco area, which is ironically home to many tech companies such as Google, Facebook, and Salesforce, our metro is moderately expensive and every few months prices would rise. One would think that for higher prices, the ride would be better quality but quite the opposite, there are so many solicitors and sometimes performers that it’s impossible to have a quiet train ride especially after a long day of work. Over the years, there’s been an increase of disorderly homeless people that harass commuters. I’ve experienced being stalked at night, having to wait one hour for the bus to come, being harassed inside the bus itself, and once, I witnessed a physical fight inside the platform. Even when I was in New York, my friend and I saved a young lady from a man who kept bothering her while touching himself. At least the New York subway system, however filthy and old it may be, might be the most extensive one out of all the U.S.’ metro systems.

As a result of the U.S.’ failure to provide for this necessary public good, for most Americans, buying a car is a significant goal in life. That’s because in most cities in the United States, a car is a necessity to get anywhere. However, most people in Seoul get by without one, and frankly, for most people, it’s just an extra expense one can live without. Think about all the expenses that come with owning a vehicle, from the price of the car itself, the interest when you borrow the money to buy it, insurance, gas, maintenance and parking. These accumulated expenses can take up a huge chunk of your income. For middle class people like me, it’s hard enough to make ends meet when the cost of living keeps going up. Besides, I think I’d rather use my money for plane tickets, or to buy a home.

South Korea’s well-developed transportation system is a big factor in my decision to move here one day. Here in Seoul, the public transportation is inexpensive, fast, convenient, safe and extensive in its reach. For the eight months that I’ve been here, I have been able to go to so many places without a car, including the beach, a water park and even a ski resort way up high in the mountains! Of course, when the need arises, one can always rent a car (and rent a driver along with the car). There are many forms of transportation in South Korea; airplanes, ferries, special buses and trains for long distance travel or specific travels, as well as the subway, taxis and buses for regular commutes. Wherever you want to go within South Korea, I assure you that about 95% of the time there would be a subway and bus combination to take you. The city buses are classified by color dependent upon their route, while express buses take you to a particular destination. Bus stops have names and code numbers so you can search them online and see which buses stop there along with real-time arrival times.Almost everything is within reach. I can do almost anything and go almost anywhere just by using the transportation system.

Taking a train ride to go to the beach.


Welcome to Gangmun Beach, located in Gangneung.


Gangmun Beach: they say that spending some time in nature soothes the soul, and I think they might be right!


Remnants of trenches that soldiers used while protecting the country from invaders.


Enjoying the sea breeze…

Most bus stops also have maps of the bus routes, an arrow pointing to the next stop, and a screen that displays buses’ arrival times and whether they are crowded or not. Inside the buses, there is also a screen that displays the upcoming stop and the next stop after, along with a recorded voice announcement. Perhaps for the convenience of the influx of foreigners in recent years, there is also an English announcement following the Korean one. The subway also covers an expansive area and will take you all around Seoul with no problem. Trains run from 5am to past midnight. There are several exits within one stop and are labeled numerically. Popular destinations have pay-to-use lockers, food stalls, and some stations double as underground shopping centers called 지하상가(ji-ha sang-ga). Most, if not all stations have English signs, maps, and at the top of the platform door, there is a sign informing you of the subway’s direction and next station.


Bus stop with bus information and arrival times.


Arrow points you towards where the next stop is located and maps that show you the bus’ routes.


The sign on top informs you of the next station.


A shuttle bus at my school takes us around the big campus.


A subway entrance.


A look of the subway interior.


Subway platform.


Underground subway shopping centers are quite unique to Korea.

Although you can pay in cash, it’s best to buy a T-money transportation card for riding the bus and subway because you can get a discount and get free transfers (within 30 minutes). You can buy them at most convenience stores and reload them there too in addition to reloading inside the subway (only cash payments during reloading). If you have a Korean bank account, you can ask for your debit card to double as a transportation card. There are also prepaid discounted subway cards that give you 60 rides per month. The government also grants tax benefits to people who use public transportation. It’s important to note that once you ride the bus and tap the T-money card on the reader, you have to tap the reader again before getting off. This is because we pay one base fee and an additional fee when the distance is over a set number of kilometers. For example, the adult cost for a subway ride is 1,250 won for a maximum distance of 10km. More than 10km travels may cost an additional 100 won for an extra 5-10km. So so cheap!


Make sure to tap your T-Money card on the reader going in and out the bus!

Koreans have a fast-paced lifestyle that is embedded in their culture. They call it 빨리빨리 (ppali-ppali), as in “hurry, hurry!” In order to accommodate this fast-paced lifestyle, the subway and bus systems need to be efficient and on schedule. No government wants a disgruntled public! Although Seoul is a large city geographically, it is very crowded, and so to save space for more important needs such as housing and enterprises, vehicle usage needs to be minimized. In addition, we do have air pollution problems and car usage can aggravate it. On days that the air quality is really bad, sometimes the government mandates a ban on using certain cars.