Seoul Boosts Transit Ridership with Color-Coded Buses and Other Reforms
Seoul's color coded buses simplify route identification and encourage bus ridership. Photo by Jon Allen.

Seoul's color-coded buses simplify route identification and encourage bus ridership. Photo by Jon Allen.

On July 1, 2004, the municipal government of Seoul, South Korea restructured its public transportation system to improve commuter satisfaction and provide a better integrated bus system to discourage private vehicle use, reduce traffic congestion and pollution, and improve quality of life overall for urban citizens.

Prior to the reforms, 60 percent of all commuters in the city complained about bus operations. In response, Mayor Lee Myung-Bak formed a committee to overlook the restructuring of 600 bus routes and bus lines, which were eventually separated into four categories, depending on destination. The buses and routes were color-coded—red, blue, yellow and green—for ease of understanding. As John Calimente of re:place magazine recently wrote, it “goes a long way towards solving the bus legibility problem.”

Seoul's color-coded bus map makes it easy to distinguish how to get from zone to zone. Photo via re:place magazine.

Seoul's color-coded bus map makes it easy to distinguish how to get from zone to zone. Photo via re:place magazine.

The restructuring involved redesigning the routes to complement the subway system, creating a comprehensive route identification system. It allotted designated lanes for buses, separating them from vehicular traffic to improve road safety and ease congestion. After the program was implemented, the level of complaints decreased to only 15 percent of commuters and transit ridership increased by 30 to 40 percent.

The bus re-brand certainly helped. Calimente explains what each of the colors mean:

  • Blue buses travel long distances on major arterial roads.
  • Green buses operate as feeder buses to the eight lines on the subway system.
  • Red buses are express routes with limited stops connecting major suburban towns to the central city.
  • Yellow buses are circular routes that travel between the major destinations in the central city.

As we wrote about before, colors and icons “are not just about wayfinding; they also ensure that a people can understand and identify transit regardless of literacy or language, help travelers and commuters switch between transit modes and routes, and enforce or legitimize rules of the road.”

Seoul’s color-coded buses are also an example of savvy marketing, branding and communications, which can not only attract riders out of their cars, but also attract attention and investment from political leaders who have the power to support more sustainable transportation projects.

The blogger Jarrett Walker of Human Transit generated a lengthy discussion about the advantages and limitations of this type of color sorting. He said he usually prefers to see distinctions related to bus frequency and service span, not directions of routes. He also notes that cities with centralized control of all transit services would be best suited to branding their services through color schemes.

Of course, Seoul’s transport reforms were not solely due to brightly colored paint.

In order to increase service efficiency, the municipal government also installed a smartcard system that allowed each commuter to transfer electronic cash, speeding the boarding process and closely monitoring the driver’s daily earnings. The restructuring also put in place a strict timeline, requiring drivers to leave stations, even if buses were empty, to improve service efficiency.

To avoid business opposition, the municipal government also agreed to cover the loss of business in the form of subsidies. This also cut down on operating costs and boosted public satisfaction with the transport system.

Seoul’s successful transition to a more comprehensive transport system has been a source of inspiration for other cities. Officials from Manila, Philippines, for example, were impressed on a recent study tour of the South Korean capital. Francis Tolentino, chair of Metropolitan Manila Development Authority, found himself admiring Seoul’s recent transition when considering improvements to his own transport system. However, Tolentino also acknowledged the difficulty of implementing the exact changes, and instead, he articulated the importance of a gradual execution of ideas, starting with the smartcard fare collecting system.

To learn more about Seoul’s transit successes, consider listening to President of Korea Transport Institute Kee Yeon Hwang give a talk, “The Sustainability Dividend of Building a Better Bus System: Evidence from Seoul’s Public Transit Reform,” outlining how the capital city enhanced bus performance and service quality. The free event will take place on March 31 at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada.

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  • Laurence Finn

    I’ve lived in Seoul for over 30 years and am totally satisfied with this reform of the bus system. Actually, I always have to ask the bus driver “Is this the old 28?” or some such thing, before I get on. But it has made things simpler, and people like me are lest apt to get on the wrong bus, or the right bus going in the wrong direction. This is a consideration when you are living in a Metropolitan area with over 20 million other people! Of course, when it first came online – everyone hated it here – especially moving the bus lines from the side of the streets to the center. There was such confusion! But after a couple of weeks, I think everyone agreed – it was a major improvement.

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  • Todd


    Maybe Im to simple minded, but what does this article tell me about the Seoul bus system. I see that they have color coded the zones, but what does that do for me? I can just as easily look at a map of Seoul and get more information into the area Im travelling. If I was new to Korea knowing that the red bus goes outside of Seoul and the green buses stay in Seoul would help, but I would think there is more to it than that.

    I think it would be more beneficial to a foriegner if we were told how to use the bus system. An English bus schedule and times with destinations would benefit me and Im sure others greatly.

  • Dario Hidalgo

    Really nice post. Seoul is one of the cities reviewed for the publication “Bus Karo: A Guidebook on Bus Planning and Operations” The reasons are reflected in your post: large scale reform with significant impact on improving accesibility. As you say, it is a very interesting model for learning and adapting to other places.