Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Seoul’s Public Transit, and Driving Obsession

Here’s a fact which may surprise you – I have lived without owning a car for 4 and a ½ years, and I have been totally fine! As readers of this blog will know, I come from the USA, land of cars. In addition to the suburban house with the white picket fence and the 2.1 kids, the automobile is a central part of the American dream. I eagerly awaited the freedom gained from receiving my first driver’s license when I turned 16 and felt pride in being able to drive my neighbor to high school during my senior year. In my 20s when I received a promotion at work I celebrated … by treating myself to a new car. Unless you are in New York, living without a car in the USA feels somewhere between traumatic and impossible, so when I sold my wheels to CarMax to move abroad in 2012 I was entering a great unknown.

Regular Seoul traffic
Flash forward to 2017 and I haven’t really missed a beat. I settled in the center of Seoul, near the Itaewon district, and for my first job next to Gangnam Station I was able to commute by public bus. As a few of my colleagues lived in my neighborhood, I frequently would commute by taxi with them. Taxi prices in Seoul are very reasonable by developed-world standards – the cost for 4 passengers to my workplace almost equaling the bus charge – and there is rarely a shortage of unoccupied cars patrolling my area. Since transitioning to a job in the suburb of Suwon in 2014, I have been able to board a Samsung-operated shuttle bus to work with a stop 8 minutes from my apartment.

Seoul has a superb, thorough public transit system that can take you almost anywhere in the metropolitan area. The subway is the 4th busiest in the world (behind Tokyo, Beijing, Shanghai) and with so many lines that the numbers 1-9 are not enough to denote them. Announcements and signs are in 4 languages (Korean, English, Chinese, Japanese) so you should never get lost. With the Subway Korea app you can easily plot your journey and the trains are extremely punctual. You can easily buy transit cards at local convenience stores, or the charge will auto-deduct from any Korean credit card (or your smartphone if you’re a savvy techie!). Transferring between lines or to the bus system is free – it’s very functional and rational!

Big roads in Seoul, filled with cars and buses
The bus system is intimidating for a tourist but well worth learning if you’re a resident, and it’s a great incentive to learn some Korean. The buses are far more Koreanized but the major lines do make stop announcements in English. Pretty much wherever the subway does not go, a bus will – and there are many lines even in the suburbs. Figuring out the right bus to take can be tricky, though Google Maps is slowly getting better (still quite limited functionality compared with USA). With some Korean language ninja skills, though, you can plot your journey with ease using Naver Map – it not only tells you all the possible bus lines to take but also gives precise walking directions… even telling you which exits to use at the subway stations. With the KakaoBus app, you can track when your bus will arrive and see route maps for every bus line. All the information you need is in your hand!

Riding taxis requires actually interacting with a non-English-speaking human (Shock! Horror!), but with a little planning you can manage. It’s important to either have the address you are visiting written in Korean, which the driver will punch into his GPS system, or to be able to say the name of a nearby landmark in Korean. Again the fares are inexpensive by global standards and all drivers are REQUIRED to accept credit cards. And no tipping! Such a lovely system! The cars are almost all modern Hyundais with air conditioning, functioning windows, seat belts, few nasty smells ^_^ There is an app for that too, KakaoTaxi, which you can use to call a taxi, though it’s in Korean (English guide here). Generally it’s faster to stick out your hand and hail down a passing cab than it is to use the app. Uber has tried unsuccessfully to break into Seoul and its coverage is very limited.

Some fancy cars sneak in among the Hyundais and Kias
Finally, getting out of Seoul for the weekend is pretty easy too. Inter-city buses travel from Seoul to every other city in Korea. Booking tickets in advance requires even more advanced Korean language ninja skills than plotting a journey in Naver Map, but there are enough buses that most times you can just head to the bus station and hitch a bus departing to your destination in the next 20-30 minutes. Or you can stick to the KTX express train, which is the best way to get to Busan and has an okay English-language reservation website.

In spite of the ease of getting around Seoul and beyond with someone else driving, there are a ton of cars in this city. Traffic here is AWFUL, awful, as bad as anything I have seen in the US – including Washington DC. The major roads in Seoul are well-maintained and insanely wide for such a crowded city, and the proverb “if you build it, they will come” definitely applies here. Almost every apartment complex has an underground parking space built for each tenant, and every shopping area is packed with parking as well. If you’ve been out drinking soju, no worries! There are drivers for hire (대리운전) all over who will escort your vehicle home for an affordable rate. Just last weekend, I had a couple coworkers to my house for dinner who drove into Seoul from one of the commuter suburbs and needed to navigate the 20km (12 miles) return journey after a few glasses of whiskey. The hired driver arrived just a minute or two after being summoned and only charged 25,000 KRW ($22) for the journey.

End of the workday at Samsung, full of the executives' black cars and private chaffeurs
Where you can’t find garage parking you can probably find valet parking for your vehicle. Hence, big roads + lots of parking = tons of cars. Despite all the alternative public transit options, I guess the appeal of driving oneself around in an automobile is too great, even far from America. Unlike the US you don’t see pickup trucks here and few SUVs – the roads are filled with a monochromatic blend of black, grey, and white 4-seater sedans, dominated by Hyundai’s and Kia’s.

Though I haven’t owned a car while living here I haven’t missed driving too much. If I had small children at home I would certainly buy a car, and it would be nice to drive to one of the better grocery stores rather than settling for the mediocre stores in my neighborhood. Also it would be nice to occasionally drive out into the countryside for the weekend to escape the city, though then I would be dealing with the awful traffic. Not to mention… driving standards here are good by developing country standards but quite bad by American/European standards. The drivers are aggressive, they brake and accelerate suddenly, and they don’t like to let you into their lanes. Seoul is certainly better than Busan, where I routinely saw drivers run red lights, but I am surprised there are not more accidents here.

In short, I haven’t seen a need to invest in the Korean obsession of owning a car and sitting in endless traffic. I have never driven here, not even rented a car (in Jeju this would have been nice), but haven’t felt hampered, and the cost savings from not owning a car have been immense. I have only driven cars during business trips and the occasional home leave to USA, and it will feel a little strange when I someday return to the USA and restart my daily commute by getting behind the wheel.

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