Improving Public Transportation in the Seoul Metropolitan Area

The Seoul Metropolitan Area (SMA) suffered from severe congestion and auto-related pollution in the early 2000s. One way to mitigate these problems was to promote mass transit. Public transportation in the SMA consisted of the Metro (subway train) and bus transit. The bus system, however, was functioning poorly; its service quality was deteriorating and it was losing passengers continuously. In 2004, the newly elected mayor, Myung Bak Lee, launched the “Public Transport Reform Program.” This case study will examine how this program tackled the important development challenge of improving the bus system throughout the SMA.” It will also examine how implementers dealt with delivery challenges, including issues with stakeholder engagement, and implemented a variety of tools of the reform: quasi- public bus operation/management, installation of exclusive median lanes, adoption of Metro-bus integrated T-money fare system, and centrally-controlled bus operation/ management system.

The city first organized the Bus Reform Citizens Committee (BRCC) to strengthen stakeholder engagement and gain support from various interest groups, including concerned citizens, academia and NGOs. The city government also formed the Public Transport Promotion Task Force as an advisory group; this task force included transportation experts from inside and outside city government, including senior transport planners from the Seoul Institute. Contributions by the think tank group of the Bus Reform Task Force in the Seoul Institute were particularly critical, as they directly supported the mayor’s bus reform team and the BRCC by frequently conducting research studies and disseminating relevant information.

The application of ICT significantly contributed to the successful implementation, particularly the T-money (smart card) and advanced ITS. The smart card helped consolidate the Metro with the bus transit system through an integrated single fare system, while advanced ITS activated the TOPIS (Seoul Transport Operation & Information Service). The combination of the two made it possible to implement the BMS successfully. Finally, the use of both the exclusive median bus lane and colour- coded bus identification scheme significantly contributed to the success of the bus reform; the former helped inter- regional, long distance buses speed up, and the latter allowed citizens to more easily access the bus they needed.

The reform program led to a significant increase in bus speed, as well as substantial increase in bus ridership thanks to improvement in service quality (comfort, convenience, safety, and punctuality, as well as making the bus transit reliable and compatible with the Metro). And both discounted fare and easy inter-modal transfer helped increase Metro ridership as well. The two systems became complementary, rather than substitutes. Accordingly, the number of private automobiles significantly decreased, especially during the rush hours, resulting in substantially attenuating congestion and pollution.

Major success factors for the bus system reform included strong leadership from the mayor, an enabling governance structure, organizational skill and capability, strong use of ICT, and research support to the reform.