Wonderful subway and annoyances
A few weeks ago, the Korean media noticed a music video about the Seoul subway that had become a hit on YouTube.
Produced by an American songwriter, known as Michael, living in Seoul, the lyrics praise the Seoul subway, comparing it favorably with its famous counterparts in New York, London, and Tokyo. The video is a good example of how content produced spontaneously by foreigners living in Korea has more appeal than dry promotional content produced by government agencies.
The Seoul subway wins high marks from foreign residents and visitors. It is clean, safe, and inexpensive. The nine lines cover the entire city, leaving only a few areas dependent on buses. Indeed, the Seoul subway has become one of the world's leading subway systems, ranking third in annual ridership and fifth in length of passenger routes.
But nothing is perfect. For all its strong points, the subway has several grinding annoyances. One of the most obvious to trained subway riders from London or Tokyo is the escalators. People in those cities divide themselves neatly into two rows: one for walkers and one for standers. People who want to stand move over to let hurried walkers move by quickly. Blocking the way is a social taboo that results in gruff orders to move aside. For all the talk of how hurried Koreans are, the sight of escalators full of patient (or frustrated) standers is an oddity.
Another problem with the escalators is the speed. Most move at a brisk, but safe speed, but some are terribly slow. Some of the slow escalators are also narrow and do not permit two rows of traffic. One of the worst offenders is the escalator at Exit 3 of the Seoul National University Station. Students have complained for years, but to no avail.
The second problem is that some riders still do not understand that people on the train need to get off first. Standing in front of the flow of people leaving the train causes unnecessary confusion. Likewise, sneaking in on the side of the door narrows the exit and makes it harder for people to leave the train. These problems sometimes cause trains to get backed up during rush hours, making for longer waiting time and excessive crowding.
The third problem is panhandlers and beggars. The subway has signs stating clearly that panhandling is not permitted. Announcements from time to time ask riders to discourage panhandlers by not buying from them. Poles at the entrance to escalators have been put in to make it harder for panhandlers to move their goods. And yet the panhandlers remain. Most riders ignore them, but they wouldn't be there if there were no sales.
Compared to more aggressive panhandlers elsewhere, Korean panhandlers are very polite. They give their spiel and move on, but remain an annoyance. The cart blocks space and the loud spiel can be distracting. Those selling golden oldies CDs fill the car with music, which is usually too loud. Music on the subway can be pleasant, of course (confession: I enjoyed humming to ``Hotel California" on a tired evening not too long ago), but for most, it is an annoyance.
Then there are the beggars. Like the panhandlers, Korean beggars are polite. Many distribute a short note explaining their situation. They take money when collecting the note, and quietly ignore those who do not give money. Others walk (or ride, in the case of a wheelchair) through carrying a bowl and playing sad music as they go through the cars. Most riders ignore the beggars and let them go about their business.
Budget permitting, the speed of escalators is easily fixed, but the other issues are more difficult because they involve people. Who teaches people to wait for people to exit the train before getting on? Where do the panhandlers and beggars go if they can no longer use the subway?
The subway carries 8 million people a day safely and in (relative) comfort, so why bother with the details of human behavior? The answer is clear: the practices make Korea look bad. Foreigners new to Korea are often surprised to find beggars on the subway, which prompts questions about poverty in Korea. The seeming lack of public order adds to the impression that Korea is ``not there yet."
Dealing with these problems requires will that is often in short supply in public organizations, but leaving them alone affects Korea's image negatively. As a start, subway authorities should begin enforcing the existing ban on panhandling by increasing police presence. A ban on begging should be adopted and enforced. The number of assistants on platforms should be increased so that they can remind riders to stay clear of the doors when passengers exit.
Over time, the message will go out that the subway ― the most public of spaces ― has a set of rules based on consideration of others.
The writer is a professor at the Department of Korean Language Education at Seoul National University. He can be reached at email@example.com.