South Koreans have truly mastered the commute. Simply put, a typical Seoul subway station is equipped with amenities and an attention to detail unknown to most American cities. That's despite the challenge of shuffling an estimated 6.9 million passengers through its metro system every day, making it the third-busiest metro system in the world — right behind Tokyo and Moscow.
"As a Seoulite and as someone working for the city government, I think it's world-class," Chang Yi, a transportation expert and research fellow at the Seoul Institute, said in a phone interview. "I would rate it as the highest in the world, maybe, but I'm biased."
He's not far off. Seoul's transit has been called one of "the best public transportation systems in the world" on a number of occasions. South Korea takes pride in how its people get around: The country's Incheon International Airport has ranked as the best in the world for 12 years in a row now, for example.
Here's why anyone in a major metropolis should be paying attention — especially New Yorkers, who live in a megacity somewhat similar in size, but with a subway that is "plagued by chronic delays" and crumbling infrastructure. And as the New York City subway tries to fit more people than ever, it's good to remember that cities don't have to be like this.
Compared to the U.S., Seoul's transit looks downright futuristic
In many Seoul subway stations, monitors line the walls as passengers descend underground on escalators. News crawls and advertisements for new films fill the few seconds of wait time.
Once inside, passengers can browse an underground bazaar: flower stands, convenience stores, jewelry kiosks, shoe bins and people in aprons cooking hot street food, such as rice rolls or spicy fish cakes. There are electronics shops selling cheap earbuds and phone chargers for those who left home in a frenzy — and sometimes tailors or hairdressers taking walk-ins.
Even the most exhausted and overworked commuter can get their quick fix on the way to work: By slipping a 500-won coin (about $0.50) into a slot, you can watch a shot of hot coffee brew and automatically spurt into a paper cup.
In Seoul, public transit is a way of life. Everything seems to be engineered meticulously: Public bathrooms sell tampons, pads and baby wipes. Fare machines coach tourists through reloading their transportation cards in multiple languages. The same map is often visualized in different ways, so that even the most hopeless navigator can find their path. And once on the train, passengers are still able to get cell service and Wi-Fi, in addition to enjoying an air-conditioned climate in the summer, heated seats in the winter and a lively jingle that comes on to announce transfer stations.
It's the benefit of living in what Yi called a "transit-oriented city."
"The majority of people live about 500 meters from a public station. They can walk from a subway to their homes in 10 minutes," Yi said, "So many people just want to take care of their needs — they don't want to go home, then go out again to buy a pack of milk. That's not convenient at all."
It may be a matter of priorities (and money)
Though it's true that the U.S. has some well-regarded transit systems, like in Seattle or Washington, D.C., America is still plagued with a reputation for unpleasant — if not broken — infrastructure.
"In American cities, transit works in very few places," Yi said. "Even that" — the idea that transit "works" at all — "is controversial."
But of course, Americans still rely on public transportation, even when it has room for improvements. The total number of passenger trips taken on U.S. transit — trains, subways and buses, for example — has increased by about 33% in the last two decades, according to the American Society of Civil Engineer's 2017 Infrastructure report card.
Unfortunately, that uptick coincides with about a $90 billion backlog in needed maintenance and repairs, pointing to serious neglect.
One cause may be that American transit tends to rely heavily on government subsidies, while passenger fares pay a much more sizable chunk of Seoul's transit.
"The difference between the Asian systems and the American system is that some of the Asian systems can pay for themselves. But in the U.S., the cities may need a subsidy," Norman Garrick, an associate professor of civil engineering at the University of Connecticut, said in a phone interview. "For the best-performing systems in America, it's less than 60% funded by fare. But most systems are probably around 30% to 35%."
Basically, Seoul's transit costs less per ride and is used more often. The current base fare for an adult passenger is 1,250 won (about $1.10) per ride on a reusable card. That's significantly cheaper than the at least $2.25 fare in Boston or $2.75 fare in New York City, but it can add up to a lot of cash flow for Korean transportation.
A 2016 report also suggests that on average a person in Seoul uses rail 0.67 times a day, compared to 0.54 in New York or 0.21 in Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, Seoul residents take the bus an average of 0.44 times a day, while the average New Yorker's number is just half of that — 0.22.
"The problem with the U.S. is that the government is always quick to cut back on subsidies for transportation, because there's not a lot of appreciation for transit," Garrick said. "There's a lot of impressions in the U.S. that transit is just for poor people. ... Whereas the best performing cities, from a transit point of view — they realize that transit needs to be attractive for everybody. You have to be willing to pay for it."
But American and Korean cities are very different
Yi believes that Seoul's density alone makes it more conducive to affordable, well-funded metro and bus systems. It's a city that thrives on tall apartment buildings that house hundreds (if not thousands) of people — roughly 60% of Seoul residents live in an apartment building today, compared to just 1% about 40 years ago. This means that many Koreans living in Seoul likely can access a subway or bus station with relative ease — an estimated 19,000 people live within a single city block in Jamsil, for example, which is a neighborhood in the outskirts of Seoul.
"The way cities are developed in the U.S., with suburbs and an urban city center far from each other — and people living in single, detached housing — that all makes public transit inconvenient," he said. "You need to have density — some kind of dense housing development around a public station for transportation. That works."
But it's no reason to give up hope. "You can have single-family neighborhoods that can be served sufficiently by transit," Garrick said, meaning that the U.S. really can have it all. There's just one caveat — it has to make a concerted effort to do so, first.
"The issue is the willingness [of] the government to realize that they're providing a service that is important for the sufficient functioning in the city," he said.
In other words, transportation needs to be a priority — yet America's largest subway system, in New York City, remains inefficient in part because of funding issues. State Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has been accused of favoring cars over public transit, is spending more than $11 million on blue-and-yellow tiles for subway tunnels, for example. Meanwhile, the MTA gets hit with $65 million budget cuts and passengers are left with three quarters of their subway lines experiencing "chronic delays."
Seoul's transportation is reliable, navigable and fun
With or without its fancy underground marketplaces, Seoul city transit generally fulfills the needs of its passengers — and that's arguably what matters the most. Even if the U.S. can't perform a massive overhaul of its city and transit infrastructure, Seoul's transportation is arguably a model just for its small details.
At outdoor bus stops, for instance, an electronic sign tells passengers how long they have to wait before their bus arrives.
"It's sort of embedded in Korean behavior [that] people want to plan. They don't want to miss any time," Yi said. "It kind of reduces anxieties, and that's very important for Koreans."
Even if it's a necessary tool to accommodate South Korea's "Balli balli!" ("Hurry, hurry!") culture, these signs would no doubt bring Americans similar benefits, like peace of mind and a better grasp of their schedule. And such additions wouldn't necessarily require anyone to tear up million-dollar train tracks, either.
Ultimately, "it's about how you see transit," Garrick said. "If you see transit as part of the spectrum of tools that you're using to make sure that you have a viable, functioning city, then you do some of these things."
But by the time Americans get around to enjoying this transportation of the future, it may already have become a relic of the past.