Walk down any major street in Seoul, South Korea, after dark and you’re more than likely to find carts with distinctive colorful awnings lining the sidewalk. The wafting steam and smells lure customers in, creating an inviting atmosphere where college students, businessmen, and retirees alike can grab a quick bite together. Known as pojangmacha, literally translated as “take-away cart,” these indispensable components of Seoul’s urban culture foster an active, communal street life without impeding efficient mobility.
The pojangmacha experience
Ranging in size from small carts less than two meters wide to large tents that encompass several tables, the carts provide a vital space for residents to unwind after a busy day of work. Understandably popular in busier nightlife districts, some pojangmacha stay open until dawn, catering primarily to the post-bar crowd. The great demand for the carts has caused them to spread throughout the city, and can now be found in virtually every district.
Mrs. Pyeong-gan Yu is one such vendor-entrepreneur, operating a cart just outside the heart of the busy student district of Sinchon. Like most pojangmacha vendors, she is female and slightly past middle age, but has the energy of someone twenty years younger. Having a lot of energy is needed in this line of work – Mrs. Yu works from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m. – but like other cart vendors she has a kind nature, strong spirit, and a certain spunk with which she keeps customers entertained.
Pojangmacha, transport, and innovative urban planning
While no doubt an iconic and a ubiquitous part of the city’s urban environment, pojangmacha also play an important role in the context of urban transport. Seoul’s effective street food management and regulation has kept its proliferation from interfering with the city’s transport system – a rare balance for a city of its size. Moreover, the carts use stoves, and thus avoid the air quality concerns associated with street barbecues in cities such as Beijing. Confined to pre-designated spaces on the city’s sidewalks, the carts provide a safe place for customers to sit and eat without obstructing traffic from private vehicles or public transport. Often, several carts will be lined up in a row, creating a safe, concentrated space – a miniature “arcade” in which pedestrians are free to walk, eat, and enjoy the evening.
Keeping pedestrians safe from traffic is just one of the many benefits of the pojangmacha. Famed urban theorist Jane Jacobs would likely laud the carts for keeping “eyes on the street” – the carts encourage people to stay out, creating a lively, safe, comfortable street life that often goes on well past midnight. For example, some pojangmacha are also found in areas such as empty parking lots, or under fly-overs. What would normally be a dim, gritty, even frightening space can be immediately livened up by one of the pojangmacha, making it a destination, rather than a place to avoid.
Moreover, the presence of tasty, cheap, convenient street food is a great reason to opt out of driving a car in Seoul. As pojangmacha are often located in busier areas, especially in the nightlight life districts, it is often difficult and not worth the effort to park just to grab a snack.
Cart regulation is key to success of pojangmacha
The system of licensing and registering carts is an important factor in their success. Each district has its own “pojangmacha mart,” a place where prospective vendors can go to both purchase a cart along with rights to a given piece of territory. When purchasing rights to operate on a piece of land, it’s understood that the cart will need to be kept out of the way of traffic. Owners of carts will often make specific markings on the sidewalk to determine exactly where they should be placed each day.
Moving forward: Seoul provides useful example for other major cities
If there’s one thing other cities can learn from Seoul, it is this: street food can and should have a part in highly developed urban environments. It reinforces an active, engaged street life, encourages people to walk instead of driving, and lends the city character. Nearly all large cities around the world have some form of street food – it is thus imperative that we look to Seoul for an example of street food done right, and to learn how this sector can be effectively managed so as to be a positive force for smart urban planning.