A Tale of Two Subways

A woman exits a train on Seoul Metro Line 1 (photo: Patrick Lydon)

A woman exits a train on Seoul Metro Line 1 (photo: Patrick Lydon)

Last year, I took a rather ‘complete’ tour of one of the world’s largest metro rail transit systems, visiting all 483 metro stations in Seoul, South Korea over the course of a month.

During that month, I found rapid transit in the South Korean capital city to be not only massive, but also among the most technologically advanced in the world. At the end of the system tour, I was left questioning — even more than I already did — the way that transit development is carried out in the United States, and further, how the world’s second largest integrated rapid transit system with a daily ridership of over 8 million people, was built from nothing in just about three decades.

A total of 469-miles of track and 483-stations were built in Seoul in 30 years. By contrast, it took about the same amount of time just to plan and start construction on a 5-mile, 2-station extension for the BART rail transit system in the San Francisco Bay Area.

A bit cheeky, but also somewhat harrowing, sociecity has put together a graphical timeline comparing three decades of development on the ‘BART to San Jose‘ corridor, set against a general timeline of metro transit development in Seoul.

A Tale of Two Subways, The BART Extension to San Jose (graphic: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

A Tale of Two Subways, Seoul Metro and The BART Extension to San Jose (graphic | sociecity)

On most levels a comparison such as this is just not a fair fight, but neither is the BART to San Jose extension timeline abnormally slow for an American transit project these days. Certain New York City subway projects wouldn’t fare too well either.

Will Travel for Public Works Projects?

A slightly ‘wild’ suggestion typically floats around when projects such as these are slow to take, that is: we might do well to buy our local policy-makers flights to places like South Korea, Germany, Japan, China, or even Columbia… all countries which are doing many things right in terms of public transit.

It’s actually not so wild a suggestion afterall, but seems more along the lines of common sense; learn and expand your knowledge by taking a live sampling from the world around you, and you will benefit greatly for it.

A Subway Exit into the Unfinished Incheon International Business District (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

A Subway Exit into the Unfinished Incheon International Business District (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

This is not to say that Seoul’s implementations are perfect — they are far from it — or that building at such a rapid pace does not have its downfalls — there are many. But in contemplating possible alternatives to the daunting process of political and financial mishaps in large public works projects, it often takes a bit of looking outside our borders — and comfort zones — to figure out what others are doing right.

Now, seeing how this story is titled a Tale of Two Subways, I’ll have to get back to finishing it later, perhaps around the year 2025… when the first actual BART subway tunnel in San Jose is scheduled to be completed.


Patrick Lydon

About Patrick Lydon

Patrick is an interdisciplinary artist and writer who works to ignite unconventional, critical dialogues at the intersection of culture and ecology. He is Co-Director of FinalStraw.org, a documentary and active community dialogue about food, earth, and happiness. He holds a BA from San Jose State University and an MFA with distinction from The University of Edinburgh's "Art, Space & Nature" program.

2 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Subways

  1. Interesting article, but stops short of anything to grasp onto.

    There are many many factors which make this kind of comparison almost unfeasible. Pace of growth, labour costs, land-ownership principles, cultural differences which make it almost impossible for anyone to really learn about and apply the process from one region to another.

    All the above factors have just such a great influence on the outcome.

    1. I am a rather ‘serious’ planner (it’s my job) but I thought this was a fun read. I’m not so sure the author meant for this article to be a ‘serious’ discussion of one system vs another. Seems more whimsical than anything.

      I disagree with Jonathande when he says that it is impossible to learn and apply the process from one region to another, or that growth, labour costs, and cultural differences are too impossible to overcome. That’s just a BS copout for people who are too weak to look at differences and reconcile them and LEARN from them. This should be in the job description for a planner on these projects.

      In fact, that’s how the USA works in general… a big bin of cultural differences, they make it work somehow. Labor costs, as well, are not substantially different from Japan/Korea and the USA, it’s just that somehow the government seems to ‘leak’ money out the seems when it comes to a large construction project.

      Regarding building out transit… it’s a big big world out there, and we HAVE learned from each other so far, sharing technology and sharing conceptual ideas. East Asia would absolutely be in the stone-age in terms of transit if it weren’t for the cross cultural sharing that has already happened.

      Now, I do agree that corruption is a problem in the bart extension, and in the NYC line that is cited in this article, and that’s something that won’t change anytime soon in the U.S. I don’t know if that’s one of the ‘cultural’ and ‘labor cost’ issues you’r referring to.

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