[My Seoul Story] Discovering Seoul's urban fabric by bus
Posted : 2017-02-10 17:32
Updated : 2017-02-10 20:56
This is the last in a series of contributions about Seoul's charms as seen from foreigners' points of view. ― ED.
By Colin Marshall
I've seen ― and learned ― so much about this city from the windows of buses. They've shown me the hillside urban villages normally blocked from view by high-street towers; the less-developed and lower-key but nevertheless fascinating urban spaces between well-known districts like Hongdae and Insadong, Myeongdong and Itaewon (all filled with tourists who seldom stray outside their boundaries); and the veritable hidden labyrinth of covered market streets threaded through the neighborhoods between where I live in Sinchon and downtown.
Soon after I first came to Korea, I made the effort to better understand the nature of Seoul's distinctive and ever-changing urban fabric by avoiding the subway whenever possible ― no matter how much I admire it.
Veteran subway riders may know the subway map intimately, but that hardly translates to knowing the city itself; they may grow familiar with many individual neighborhoods, but without much understanding of how those neighborhoods connect to one another and what lies between them.
The seeming complexity of the Seoul bus system, in not just its extent but variety of routes and the shapes, sizes and colors of the vehicles that run them, can intimidate potential riders, especially foreign ones. But even a basic understanding of how the buses work enables ― for tourists and longtime residents alike ― the discovery of Seoul, not in fragments, but as a whole.
The bus keeps me in a tourist's state of mind even as a resident of Seoul, letting the city surprise me with every ride.
Coming from America, I grew up prejudiced against buses. Most U.S. cities run bus systems specifically for those too poor, young or infirm to drive a car, and thus face little pressure to make them more pleasant or convenient. The expectation of inferior service leads to the reality of inferior service, which in turn lowers expectations further, causing a feedback loop. In Seoul, by contrast, everybody ― or at least a relatively wider cross-section of the population ― rides the bus.
It surprises an American tourist the first time he boards a Seoul bus, to take a seat among members of the well-dressed middle class ― or to stand among them, if the bus is packed during rush hour. So does the comfort of the seat itself, as well as the lack of litter on the floor and scratches on the windows. Nor would he have imagined the bus would arrive so quickly in the first place. This all comes not just as a result of the priority placed on infrastructure, but from expectations as high as American ones are low. Seoulites, a demanding people when it comes to public transit, haven't been unknown to complain about any deficiencies they find.
And however impressive already, the system does have room for improvement: the project of constructing dedicated lanes to keep buses out of competition with automobile traffic, for example, still has a long way to go.
As a writer on cities, I instinctively evaluate certain things when first I set foot in a new town, none as much as the transit system. Seoul passes this test with its subway alone. But let's not overlook the considerable merits of Seoul's bus system, not just as a way to get from point A to point B but to understand the city itself.
Colin Marshall is a Seoul-based writer and broadcaster on cities.