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The Peninsula

How Seoul Could Help Make America’s Transit Great Again

Published January 11, 2017
Category: South Korea

By Christopher Hurst

As President-elect Donald Trump prepares for the presidency, more of his plans for the nation have come into focus. One of his most talked-about plans is a massive investment in America’s infrastructure. In one of his first addresses after being elected, Trump said, “We are going to fix our inner cities and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals. We’re going to rebuild our infrastructure, which will become, by the way, second to none.”

One important part of any infrastructure investment should be public transit. Unfortunately, America does not have the best record in building efficient public transit, as any Washington, DC Metro rider can attest. However, as cities and the Trump administration begin to formulate their plans, Seoul offers an example of an efficient, well-planned public transit system for them to follow.

One of the major benefits of living in Seoul is the city’s amazing public transit. It meets the requirements of being cheap, efficient, and reliable, to the point where living without a car is a very realistic goal. As two intrepid travelers have shown, it is even possible to travel from Seoul to Busan using only using local train and bus systems.

Seoul’s first line opened in August of 1974, and the system has grown to 18 different lines serving the metro area. With the number of lines in the Seoul metro area, it may seem like Korea is finished building out their system. In fact, this is only the beginning. As Nikola Medimorec, from the transportation blog Kojects noted, “What really makes Seoul and Korea transportation a really great system are the continuous improvements.” Seoul plans to add 10 more lines to the system by 2025. If they are able to complete their goal, most Seoul citizens will live within 10 minutes of a subway station.

The Seoul subway system provided rides for 2.6 billion passengers in 2015 (using figures for only lines 1-9). This system was designed through a mix of publicly and privately owned corporations. Currently, Seoul Metro (a public company owned by the Seoul Metropolitan Government) in conjunction with the national railroad operator, Korail, operate lines 1-4. Seoul Metropolitan Rapid Transit Corporation (also a public company owned by the Seoul Metropolitan Government) operates lines 5-8. The division in operating companies was an attempt to create competition between the public companies and incentivize them to improve customer service. However, the division added cost and created inefficiencies such as reduced purchasing power for the companies. To remedy this, Seoul Metro and Seoul Metropolitan Rapid Transit recently announced a merger that should lower cost and improve safety through standardized practices across the system. The new company will be the world’s largest mass transit provider. The privately held Seoul Metro Line 9 Corporation operates the final line within the city’s borders. The lines serving the rest of the metro area are also a mix of public and private partnerships.

One of the first things noticed when comparing Seoul’s transit system versus American transit, is how little Seoul’s metro operating budget relies on a government subsidies. Much of the funding comes from passenger fares, which are still much cheaper than many metro systems in the USA as the chart shows. In 2015, Seoul Metro Corporation had a budget of $1.4 billion dollars with $755 million coming from fare income and only $25 million from the city. Additionally, Seoul Rapid Transit Corp. had a budget of $754 million in 2015 with $510 million from fare income and only $7 million as a subsidy from the city. The Washington D.C. Metro system (second busiest in America), in contrast had a budget of $1.7 billion dollars with $896 million dollars from fares and $779 million from state and local governments. All three systems have other sources of income such as advertising and commercial rent from stores in the stations. Seoul metro shows that smart planning can allow a mass transit to not be dependent on state funds.

Subway Fare Table

With so many operators, it is easy to imagine a confusing payment and transfer system. However, all the operators accept the same payment system, T-money. In fact, not only is T-money accepted in Seoul, most of the major cities in Korea (including Busan, Daegu, and Incheon) accept T-money for their bus and subway systems. In the U.S., this would be equivalent to taking a trip from Chicago to New York and using the same fare payment system in both cities. The T-money system allows a user to pay with a special transit card, a phone app, or a chip embedded on a credit card. Having one payment system that is accepted countrywide makes transportation user friendly, and ensures that travelers in Korea don’t have to worry about buying a metro card with a left over balance that they might never us again. The T-money system has become so ubiquitous that many convenient stores accept it as payment.

The improvements do not end with an expanded metro system or improved payment systems, but also aim to make the system safer. Subway passengers falling onto the tracks is a major source of accidents in the United States. It is estimated that 50 people a year die either accidently or from committing suicide on the tracks in New York City alone.  In Seoul, however, there has been an initiative over the past few years to put platform doors on all subway stops system-wide. The doors are mandatory for new stations. Because of this commitment to passenger safety, the doors have cut suicide deaths by 89% since their installation.

As the Korean example shows, there are many opportunities to invest in transit in America. From public-private partnerships to a greater emphasis on passenger safety, Donald Trump can learn a lot from Korea’s experience. Here’s hoping that while President-elect Trump works to make America’s transit great again, he remembers that when it comes to infrastructure not everyone commutes by car.


Christopher Hurst is an intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America and a graduate of the University of Illinois at Chicago. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from LWYang’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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