Friday, September 4, 2015

Seoul Metropolitan Subway: a Model for American Systems

I spent a few weeks this summer in South Korea, and naturally I had to check out their public transportation. During my travels, I rode the Seoul Metropolitan Subway five or six times, and I was quite impressed with its cleanliness, brightness, and efficiency. Compared to DC's dreary, dimly-lit stations, interminable weekend track work, and even the occasional avoidable disaster, Seoul's subway system was something like a dream come true. And when you throw in Seoul's wifi, cell service, and climate control, it really earns its reputation as one of the best subway systems in the world.

Naturally, as a transit-enthused tourist, I took a lot of photos while I was in the station and on the train. One thing I hadn't experienced before was doorless subway trains; for those of us used to hearing WMATA conductors asking us to "spread out and use all doors," it seems like a luxury to be able to spread out with ease once on the train, as there are no heavy doors to push through while the train is moving.

The doors to get on the trains themselves were quite wide; in fact, they were so large that people could enter and exit the train at the same time, which I imagine would greatly increase efficiency so long as everyone follows the arrows on the platform:

Throughout the system, I was greatly impressed by the sheer volume of information available to commuters and tourists alike. Maps show the location of your station within the surrounding neighborhood, as well as within the larger city, so that you can determine the best route to take to get where you're going. There are also maps of the stations themselves, with signs pointing you in the direction of the nearest exit and - something WMATA is missing - the important sites closest to each exit so that even out-of-towners know exactly where to go.

My favorite thing was the televisions at stations showing you where in the system the next train was (see along the bottom of the screen), so you could actually watch it approaching your station. This would be particularly useful during WMATA's track work weekends, when the times on the boards are not always correct and sometimes not posted at all.

There are also televisions onboard the trains so that you can both hear and see which station is coming up (those Korean words are, if I remember correctly, the name of the next station); light-up arrows beside the televisions point in the direction of the opening doors. The televisions also play a lot of advertisements, which is one way the system can bring in additional revenue without increasing rider fares.


To be sure, Seoul Metropolitan Subway isn't without its own problems: a collision in 2014 injured about 150 people, which was particularly upsetting given the recency of the Sewol ferry disaster and led to concerns about the system's emergency preparedness. And there are minor issues as well: during one transfer, I had to exit the station and re-enter at another point, which meant having to pay a double-fare (I wonder if this would have been the case if I had a T-money Card, their version of SmarTrip). WMATA has addressed issues like this with such creative solutions as Farragut Crossing, which gives riders 30 minutes to leave Farragut West or Farragut North stations and walk to the other.

No subway system is perfect; each one can be improved in one way or another. But my experience on Seoul Metropolitan Subway, however brief, led me to believe that there's a lot going right with that system, and certainly some ideas that could be brought to DC Metro and other American subway systems to improve information sharing and efficiency.


  1. Hey!

    Great summary about the Seoul Metro. It's my most favorite subway system in the world and I use it very often.

    The problem with the double-fare shouldn't happen. All transfer points (from a line to another) are usually well-connected and direction signs guide the users the correct way. So re-entering isn't necessary. Sometimes there are gates also for transfers (esp. Line 9) but you don't pay anything while passing through such gates. The reason is that Line 9 in Seoul is managed by a private company and so they record how many people use the line. Do you remember at what station that was?



    1. At Gimpo Airport, it is hard to move between the two line 5 platforms without leaving the paid area.

  2. Nice post and photos :) I have the same question as Nikola above. Curious if you remember the station in question.

    Also, the words in that last photo are actually about the direction of the doors, but it scrolls and shows the station name too.