I’ve been here almost a month now and have gone out almost every single day. Yet, I have only been in a private vehicle four times during that month. Why? Because living in an area with a legit public transportation system is awesome!
First, it’s just so easy. It doesn’t take long to learn the basics of the public transport system. We definitely can’t claim that we have every route and stop figured out yet (although Jared is getting pretty good at it). We have to look up bus schedules, study subway maps, and we may get turned around sometimes when we try to find the correct subway line; but once we get to our seat, it’s easy. Just ride. Don’t worry about navigating or traffic and simply go. We can get just about anywhere in Seoul within an hour or less. Since we have often lived in places where we drive for 45 minutes to an hour to get to work, a mall, or a special restaurant, this time frame is acceptable to us.
The Seoul Subway system is huge. It has nine separate lines and is second only to New York City’s Subway system in number of stops. That means that it can take awhile to get to some places because you are stopping so often. It has the longest passenger route length for any subway in the world, and only Tokyo’s subway is more frequently used. Seoul’s Line 1 opened in 1974 and expansion has continued ever since.
We have two very handy apps on our phones that make it so much easier. One is of all the subway stops in Seoul (iPhone app name: Jihachul). You can set up where you are and where you want to go, and the app will tell you which subway lines to take, when to transfer, and how long your travel time should be. We tested the app’s quoted time the other day and it was within seconds of being exactly correct. The metro always has signs and announcements in Korean and English. The signs are colored coded and match the app map. We have a similar app for the bus (iPhone app: Seoul Bus 2). It tells you which bus number will arrive at the bus stop and allows you to track your progress so you know where to get off the bus. This app also lets you save often used bus routes. So, between apps, signs, and moderate navigational skills, we have easily been able to get where we need to be. The app maps make traveling a snap! (Couldn’t resist a little rhyming action!)
We each have a T Money Card that we use to access both the metro and bus systems. It is the same size as a credit card and works like those credit card Pay Pass cards. When you enter or leave the metro station or the bus, you just place your card on a machine. The machine makes a happy little beep as it charges your card; it displays how much you are being charged and how much money remains on your card. We easily add more money to our cards by using the reload machines in metro stations or at convenience stores. Fares vary based on how far you travel. A regular ticket base fare is 1,050 won (approximately 96 cents) for the first 10 km, but you get a 100 won discount for using a T Money card making it just 950 won. You are charged an another 100 won for each additional 5 km. If we travel immediately from the bus to the subway or vice versa, we aren’t charged the base fare again. I really don’t overanalyze the cost of each trip too much. I just know that it is cheaper than paying for gas, parking, and the general stress of driving in the city.
My favorite thing about the metro is people watching. One of my first times on the subway, a rather drunk man dropped an entire Baskin Robbins ice cream cake on the floor of the subway. He didn’t even flinch as it splattered other passengers and he wandered off at the next stop, leaving his cake behind. As amusing as he was, it was just as funny to see that most of the Koreans were not surprised or concerned about the incident. Another tipsy man had a very long, serious conversation with me in Korean. Even though we used our Google Translate app to tell him that we didn’t speak Korean, he went on for at least ten minutes before we slowly moved away. I don’t want to give the impression that the subway is constantly full of drunks; however, they aren’t uncommon. Visit this fun blog to see more examples. I think it’s better for them to be on the subway than out driving in the streets.
I find the subway as one of the best places to learn about Korean culture. Their respect for elders is evident on the subway. There is a special seating area reserved for the elderly, but if that is full, younger people will quickly stand up to give their seats away. The subway also taught me about the Korean understanding of standing in line. Or rather, that lines don’t matter and you push who you need to push to get going. You might be standing in front of the doors, waiting for them to open and someone else will step directly in front of you to go first. This isn’t considered rude; for him it was necessary to ensure that he gets on the train. Additionally, I have seen people who are already on the car and standing by the doors not budge an inch to make room for people to get on or off the subway. That is where they have chosen to stay and you can go around if you need to. My fear of being squashed by the train doors helped me get over my American idea of “it’s impolite to cut in line.”
The Koreans’ love of technology is also very evident on the metro. Smart phones rule here, and the iPhone 5 screen is tiny in comparison to typical phones. When you look up and down the subway car, almost every person is staring at their smartphone. If they aren’t using their phone, then they are asleep. A lot of them seem pretty deeply asleep, and I’m not sure how they wake up in time for their stops. However, the most impressive people to watch are the girls in 4 inch heels, in the middle of the car, not holding on to anything, looking at their phone, and never stumbling once. Their balance is amazing. A new personal goal.
We use the metro to get around a lot. However, the nearest stop to our home is too far to walk to, so we take the bus to and from our metro station. Depending on where we are going, we sometimes take a taxi; there are special black taxis just for foreigners, but many of the regular taxis come with a translation service. Our realtor made us handy little business cards with our address that we show to the driver when needed. Often our mode of transport does not stop on the exact street we need; in this case we turn to our most used method of getting around: our feet. Isn’t it funny, that in a huge city with all kinds of ways to travel, we have walked around more than any other place we have lived? Up and down alleys, across busy intersections, through pedestrian thoroughfares. It’s wonderful. My feet may be tired after a day of walking around, but it’s the best way to the city. As we walk we can easily stop at little shops, glance at fresh produce in their stands, and smell every restaurant we pass. So much better than driving from place to place like we did in the States.
Even though we have our licenses and car, I don’t think we will use them very much. A car, though at times convenient, isn’t something that is vital to getting around. We plan to continue to use public transportation as much as possible. After all, I have my balancing to practice.