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Sense of Scale in Seoul: What Does Public Transport Look Like For 10 Million Inhabitants?

“It is quite far though, we would have to cycle about 20 minutes” is a sentence that surprised me on my first day in Groningen. As a Berlin native, anything under 30 minutes is an easily bikeable distance and doing a 45-minute trip across town is not unheard of. On the other hand, “it’s actually close by, only 30 minutes by metro” is something many people have told me here in Seoul. Taking public transport for this amount of time is not new to me, I have relied on metros and buses in many places I have been, but somehow I feel exhausted travelling l by metro in Seoul. This stems from the sheer size of the city. I first got to experience this when I took the shuttle bus from Seoul Incheon Airport to the Seoul National University Campus upon arriving in South Korea, which took well over 2 hours. 

In the following days I made some trips to popular Seoul neighbourhoods such as Hongdae and Gangnam, which took me well over 40 minutes one way each. A few days into my stay I spent an evening in a park near Han river eating and drinking with friends – a popular activity for summer nights in Seoul – and missed the last good connection home. I had two options: either waiting over an hour for a night bus with a two-hour connection or walking for an estimated time of two hours. As my phone was about to die and I was not yet acquainted with the public transport system, I chose the latter. Another time I faced a similar situation when I arrived with a late-night train from a trip I took, but that time I was carrying luggage and rain was pouring. So I had chosen the very long bus ride, which counterintuitively first crossed the river up North to Seoul station and then returned South which eventually brought me home – about 2.5 hours later. 

Navigating Seoul’s Transit: Tips and Tricks

Generally, the public transport situation in Seoul is reliable and affordable. The metro network is reasonably sized with good explanations for your connections and a wide variety of buses that can bring you across the whole city. Usually, you never have to spend more than 1500 KRW for a ride, which is about 1 Euro. The big downside is that the metro and buses only operate between 5:30 and midnight, with most trains and buses planned to arrive at their final stop at midnight, meaning the last ones leave their origin between 23:00 and 23:30. As a student living south of the river that gives you three options about night life: stay at home or in your neighbourhood, embark on the odyssey that is the Seoul night buses, or commit to a full night out from the get-go and hop on the first train in the morning.

The first option limits you to small bars, the second option has you home by the time the first train would have brought you in but with less fun, and just as the last option you are missing out on a good night’s sleep. When comparing the operation hours to other major cities I have been in, I have to say I think that the lower frequency of certain trains throughout the night like in Berlin is my preferred option. Close second and third preference would be the New York Metro and the London Tube, which offer longer operating hours than in Seoul. I think this is a good compromise of having fewer drivers on night shift, while allowing other shift workers, from healthcare, convenience stores, security, etc to have a fast and efficient commute home. 

On the other hand, I have to admit that the various facilities surrounding public transport are way more convenient than anywhere I have been before. Every single metro stop has a public toilet. The stalls are usually clean and always have toilet paper. The signage in the stations makes it easy to follow the direction of the train, as it shows both the final destination and the next stop. The exits of the metro stations are numbered, which I think is just perfect, so you can meet up with friends at exit 9 or follow your app navigation to a shop by taking the closest exit, say, number 3, to continue on your route. That is not all: the doors of the trains, or rather the doors of the barrier separating platform and tracks are also numbered. This makes it easy to get on the same carriage as someone you are meeting with, or get a fast transfer by getting off exactly at the right staircase. All this is especially impressive knowing that the public transport system by metro is rather young with about 50 years. 

Seoul’s metro system

The Scope of Seoul’s Public Transport System

The size of Seoul was especially apparent when I took a plane from Gimpo Airport Seoul, which is more centrally located l than the coastal Incheon – which I recently learned is not even in Seoul. The orb shaped glow of Seoul in the dark from all the street lights, cars, and windows was impressive. The hectic pace of Seoul was in stark contrast to the low hum of Jeju-City when I landed. Usually New York is known as the city that never sleeps, but I propose Seoul for that title. You have convenience stores open 24/7, there are always people up and walking around on the way to who knows where, the buses are always packed. With a population of 10 million people you will surely find someone who’s up and leading their daily lives. 

It is rather curious if we compare the geographic size of the cities mentioned above to Seoul. Groningen is expectedly way smaller than Seoul, but Berlin seems to be similar in size, and both London and New York are way bigger. Why is it then that Seoul feels so much bigger? Maybe it is the never-ending rows of high rise buildings. Maybe it is that the cities surrounding Seoul just started to merge into this ever buzzing metropolis. Maybe it just because the Han river makes it feel so much bigger, when you look at the skyline on the other side. The human perception is just interesting to me. In Seoul I willingly walk about 25 minutes to campus, when I would seldomly do so in Groningen or Berlin. Who knows, maybe I will try to walk to Zernike once I finish my exchange, because Groningen will feel just so small to me.



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