The three pillars of successful urban development in Seoul
By longzijun.

Relaxing after work along Cheonggyecheon stream, Seoul, South Korea. By longzijun.

In her February post on sustainable urban development, EMBARQ expert Robin King posed the question: “What does good urban development mean to you?” Keeping people in mind, she identified three key areas for action to produce good urban development:

  1. Providing accessible public transport services

  2. Emphasizing inclusion and equity in urban transport services.

  3. Ensuring the health and safety of public transport passengers and others who share the road.

Taking these criteria to heart, TheCityFix found one city in Asia that is setting the example for its neighbors, inviting the question: How do you make good urban development better?

Home to over 10 million people, Seoul likes to refer to itself as “the Soul of Asia.” With a population density twice that of New York City, Seoul, is making good urban development better by 1) continuously integrating modes of transport, making them more accessible; 2) making mobility affordable for all; and 3) and transforming the urban landscape and actually removing unhealthy, car centric infrastructure.

Continuously working to integrate modes of transport

Making the city accessible to residents and commuters by public transport is essential to successful urban development and growth, but allowing for the smooth integration of different modes of transport makes a city even better. The Seoul Metro covers the most track distance of any subway system in the world, serving over 7 million people every day, second only to the Tokyo Metro in annual passenger volume. In Seoul, unlike in Tokyo, you can hop off the subway and onto the bus with the same reusable pass. For those without immediate subway system access, the city offers an advanced bus system, the Seoul Bus Rapid Transit system. To make life easier, Seoul’s bus system is color coded with four types of services, based on location and transit time, offering 400 express/residential buses and 8,500 city buses. Similar to the subway, the bus system provides riders real-time bus info and route planning guide online. Seoul also offers commuters 17 water taxi stations up and down the Hangang River, a regional, high-speed  Seoul train, and the BikeSeoul bike-sharing program. Oh, and in case cyclists were curious, the Metro system (but not the bus rapid transit yet) has dedicated areas for bikes and ramps alongside stairways leading to the stations.

Making transport affordable for all

Not only is Seoul committed to getting people to their destinations by a wide variety of interconnected modes; they also manage to make these options more equitable and affordable for a wider socio-economic demographic than, say, London or Washington D.C. A trip on the subway system costs about $1; the bus ranges from $0.76 to $1.75; the water taxi comes in at just under $4.50, and regional trains offer family discounts. Tourists can hop on and hop off the bus and subway system to their heart’s content, with an unlimited tourist pass. The champion of affordability, however, is BikeSeoul, which offers riders a whopping 4-hour initial no-charge period and subscribers receive a 7-day subscription for $3 and 30 days for $5.

Transforming the urban landscape

Cities can add a subway, bus rapid transit, or light-rail to their transport infrastructure, but how many go the additional distance of removing the sources of their car-centric, unhealthy built environment? Prior to 2003, an elevated highway ran directly over the 6-kilometer course of Cheonggyecheon Stream, in downtown Seoul. But following a 2-year, USD$ 900 million investment, which was heavily criticized at first, the city removed the road, restored the stream, and constructed narrower, less invasive streets on either side. Now the stream serves as a focal point for downtown recreation, cultural festivals, wildlife viewing, and tourism. Both the stream restoration transformed this section of downtown Seoul into an attractive urban destination, rather than simply a transit corridor.

Other initiatives to improve the well-being of people include:

  • Parks, artwork, and other attractions within city subway stations.

  • A fleet of electric buses on the Namsan circuit, which only require a 30 min charge time.

  • A bike safety improvement agenda.

In these ways and more, Seoul is showing the world that good, people-centered development is better for growth and urban development in the long run.

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