Trundling across Seoul – Transportation and the Megapolis

Three days ago I was on a two-hour subway ride to Cheonan from Seoul. Research assistantship (the institutional study of North Korea) has been sending me everywhere in and out of Seoul since last summer, and this time to Korea Nazarene University. The quicker route was to take the train via Yongsan station, but I chose the subway, for I have an affinity for the Seoul Metro if time allows it. Now since it actually takes around 30 minutes from the College of Social Sciences to the Seoul National University station, it meant that I spent solid 5 hours on the road.

Yesterday I had been dozing off in a bus and apparently left my woolen hat where I was sitting, in my haste to get off at the right stop. I called the bus company, and after a series of scrutinizing questions to ensure that it really was the owner of the hat who was calling, the kindly manager said, “Our office is at Jeong-reung. You can come pick it up.” So there I was, trundling up north in a three-hour ride back and forth, cutting across Seoul, feeling a bit sheepish  but determined to retrieve my lovely winter hat.

Being on a winter vacation helps, but neither of those incidents really bothered me much. Many in Seoul are used to long hours on public transportation or on the road in a car. I spend an hour going to the university every morning and another hour returning home every night anyway. Seoul forms one of the biggest metropolitan areas out in the world, and is still mostly accessible by buses and subways with numerous transits in between. It is quite remarkable really, considering that in the States or in most other countries, public transportation is much limited and cars are often your best option. In Seoul and its suburbs, you can reach virtually everywhere, even if it means you will be taking a slightly longer route.

What is the maximum distance that you can reach by public transportation in Seoul? The computation will be very complex if both the subway and the bus system are taken into account, for there are 2,825 different buses and 19 different subway lines (some still undergoing construction) in and out of Seoul. Limiting my search to the Seoul Metropolitan Subway, the longest subway ride with a single transfer seems to be from Yongmun station (the central line) to Sinchang station (line number 1), which, according to the Jihachul application, surmounts to 3 hours and 56 minutes through 67 stations. The second longest ride is the ride from Soyosan station (line number 1) to Sinchang station (line number 1 also, but needs a transfer all the same), which is 3 hours and 52 minutes through 75 stations, not to mention crossing three distinctive provinces. In case of a single ride with no transfer, I may be wrong, but Soyosan to Incheon station (both line number 1) takes 2 hours and 23 minutes throughout 61 stations and highly likely to be the longest ride.


Metro Lines in Seoul Metropolitan Area (English), from Seoul Metro.

Such calculations give me the shivers. Of course, if you really wished to travel between, say Yongmun to Sinchang, an average citizen would be taking the KTX, the real `train’, not the rapid transit system under or above-ground. No direct routes there (subway – another subway – KTX – and another subway yet again) but it saves you around 30 minutes of your time. Personally I would not. I hate the fatigue from transferring if it does not save me lots of time. 

The many virtues of the Seoul Metro had already been extensively explained by other WordPress users, and I will not elaborate on that, proud of them as I am.

But the natural questions that arise from these anecdotal observations are, who chooses which route and why? Who chooses the subway and who chooses the bus, if both are indifferent in time? Housing choices depend heavily on public transportation accessibility – it is often a trade-off between time and the house rent. How much impact does time preferences have on public transportation and housing choices jointly? Or is it the other way around? (I have heard complaints from people who lived all their lives in non-Metropolitan areas that their commuting time was more than 30 minutes.) How are homogeneous people in terms of time preferences distributed in and around Seoul? If the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport is aiming to solve overpopulation problems by extending the subway lines, will it disperse people like it was meant to, or will it attract even more people into the Metropolitan area? How are the property rights of those who have to move out for a new subway line protected and to what extent?

Transportation in economic lenses is simply fascinating. I hope Chong sends his revised paper soon so I can start asking him questions about his methodologies. ArcGIS is a bit intimidating when you try to learn it on your own.

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