(568) Public transport in Seoul
In 1927, Seoul was a city of 315,000 inhabitants. According to City Hall statistics, public transport available to Seoulites included 130 passenger cars (about half of which were owned by the colonial administration and dozens of them served as taxicabs), 126 trams, 9,930 bicycles (in those days bicycles had to be officially registered), and 1,219 rickshaws.
The tram was by far most important ― the only means of public transportation available to the average person (that said, the poor could not afford even a tram ride). Indeed, the period from 1890 to 1950 worldwide could be described as the “age of trams,” and Seoul was no exception.
New technology, in the form of the bus, was developing fast. It is believed that the first motorized bus service began to operate in London in 1903, although some other American and West European cities also claim to be the first. In retrospect, the idea was too obvious.
Horse-drawn omnibuses traveled fixed routes in major cities from around 1820, and the development of the large motor car made the arrival of the bus all but inevitable. By the 1920s, in some Western cities, buses, more expensive to run but also more flexible, began to challenge the trams’ domination.
The Seoul municipal government also decided in 1927 that it should emulate recent foreign trends and launch a bus service. The bus company was to be directly owned and operated by the city government.
Initially, 10 buses were imported for the service. Each bus was painted black, with a yellow strip below the windows. One bus had 10 to 12 seats, and was served by a driver and a conductor.
The first bus departed with a fixed timetable on April 22, 1928. Its route was a large loop, Buses departed from Seoul Station (its building is still there, but back in 1927 it was very new), then went to Namdaemun Gate, Jongno street and the City Hall area, passing all major points in the city center, and finally returned to the starting point.
The fare was initially fixed at 7 jeon (0.07 won). Since the average salary in mid-1920 was about 20 won, nowadays this would be very roughly equivalent to 7,000-8,000 won ― not a bargain, honestly. A few months later the bus fare went down to 5 jeon, the same level as the tram fare. There were discounted tickets as well.
The first buses operated from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. between early April and late October, and from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. in wintertime. Initially the service worked well and produced higher-than-expected revenue, since the novelty of buses attracted many curious visitors. By 1932, City Hall operated 56 buses which traveled 18 different regular routes. Most of the buses were Japanese, but a few vehicles were also imported from the U.S.
From the very beginning, however, the bus had to compete with a well-established tram service. Trams required expensive tracks, but otherwise were more economical: each large train could move a hundred passengers, and was also easier and cheaper to maintain.
Still, the late 1920s were a time of intense competition. It is not incidental that the Seoul tram service underwent massive improvements in that time ― not least under the influence of the bus.
In an attempt to lure more passengers, the bus company decided to hire young girls as bus conductors. It was a novelty, since in earlier times conductors were exclusively male (and remained so in trams for another decade). The pretty girls were designed to attract additional passengers.
The trick may have worked. But it could not save operations which, at least partially, became victims of over-aggressive extension. By 1931, the City Hall realized that is was losing an ever increasing amount of money on bus services. Technology was not ready to challenge the domination of trams.
Facing large losses, the City Hall decided to sell its bus operations. Interest was expressed by the Kyongsong Electric Company which ran the urban tram network (essentially it was once founded to run trams). They were happy to buy the failing competitor, and the deal was signed in March 1933. The 54 vehicles, the office buildings and 192 employees moved under the new managers.
The 1933 acquisition did not mean the end of the Seoul bus. Re-painted in new colors, the service continued to operate. But this time the bus was to remain an auxiliary means of transportation, clearly subordinate to the tram rather than competing with it.
The new network mainly connected distant neighborhoods with the nearest tram stops. This strategy helped the bus to survive, even though the tram continued to dominate in Seoul’s public transport system. Only in the late 1950s could the bus challenge the tram ― and soon wiped it out of existence.
Professor Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.