17 October 2008

Seoul mass transit

After a month in South Korea, mass transit has now become a way of life for me. I want to write down what I learned so far, so that I could possibly re-use it as a submission to TripAdvisor or some other travel site later on.

Trip Planning

Korean speakers can use congnamul.com and Yahoo! Korea's mapping service to get routings for mass transit, not just for Seoul, but for any major city.

English speakers can visit seoulmetro.co.kr or smrt.co.kr, the websites of Seoul's two subway operating companies, for an interactive trip planner.

The Subway

For foreign visitors, the subway is the primary means of transportation, thanks to excellent signage in English. South Korean subways are run by public corporations owned by each city; Seoul, however, has such an extensive subway system that it currently has two city companies and the national rail (Korail) divvying up the job, with a third, private company coming online in the next few years. The Seoul subway system is the surest way to beat the notorious traffic, and with eight numbered lines and two named lines, it's possible to get within a 15-minute walk of just about any point in the city.

The subway costs 1,000 won (USD $1) for a basic single-ride ticket, with 100 won added for every 6 kilometers beyond the basic 12 kilometers. Make sure to check the faremap at the entrance, daunting as it is, before buying the correct ticket, either at the manned counter or at the vending machines. The small, magnetic ticket, identical to Paris Metro tickets, is required for entry AND exit. Transfers between different lines are free, even between different operators.

Feed the ticket into the turnstile, then follow the signs to the correct platform. Destination signs show major stops and the final stop served by each track. There is a yellow safety line on the platform edge, with door positions clearly marked. (Sometimes, there may be a screen door system also.) Overhead displays will indicate the destinations of the next two trains, and sometimes the current location of upcoming trains too. As the train enters the station, an audible warning will sound. When doors open, let the disembarking passengers get out first through the center of the door, then board through either side.

Once inside, remember that the seats on each end of the car are reserved for the disabled, the elderly, and the pregnant. Each stop will be announced in Korean and in English, repeating the station's name twice, indicating which side the doors will open on, any transfer information if applicable, and a wide gap warning if applicable.

Transfer stations are marked on the map by the Samtaegeuk, the three-part Korean modification of the two-part Chinese yin-yang symbol. At a transfer station, banners and signs in the color of the next line will point the way; make sure to check the destinations of each track again.

At the destination station, follow the yellow "Way Out" signs to leave the station, feed the ticket into the turnstile, then use vicinity maps to figure out the correct exit to use. It's common for a Seoul subway station to have at least six exits, and as many as 16; each is numbered.

The Bus

City buses are great for those who would rather take in the sights, for taking a shortcut when the subway requires a long detour, and for covering the few corners of the city not easily reached by the subway. Unfortunately, they are not foreigner-friendly, as the linemaps show each stop's name in Korean only. Like the subway, the buses also offer pre-recorded onboard announcements of each stop, but again, they are in Korean only (except for subway transfers, which are in English as well). Buses are strictly for the residents and for the adventurous, but the risk taken will be well rewarded.

In all South Korean jurisdictions, the local government is responsible for drawing the bus lines and setting fares. However, the buses are usually run by independent, private operators under contract from the locality. There are at least dozens, if not hundreds, of such operators in Seoul, though few riders need to concern themselves with that. In Seoul, the operators form a collaborative to voice their concerns together, and their employees also form a unified labor union.

In Seoul, a complete reform of the bus network in 2004 divided buses into four groups, each signified by the vehicle's color, as follows:
  • Yellow: These are quite rare, and limit themselves to a loop in a small, congested area, circulating in only one direction. Fare is 700 won.
  • Green: These buses, the most common, carry four-digit line numbers, and cover a specific portion of the city. The primary intent is to link subway stations to nearby neighborhoods that would otherwise require some walking. Fare is 1,000 won, identical to the subway. There also are some smaller green buses, with a two-digit number, which travel into the back alleys of a given neighborhood (unlike all other buses, which stick to only the thoroughfares); they also cost the same, and are primarily intended for the elderly.
  • Blue: Also very common, they have three-digit line numbers, and run along major trunk streets. They often run the entire width of the city, though with many stops and lots of street traffic, I would hate to be on a blue bus, whether as a passenger or as a driver; the blue is the only variety that I've never ridden on. Nevertheless, they can be pretty attractive for those who don't like the stair-climbing that the subway often requires. Fare is 1,000 won, just like the green bus and the subway.
  • Red: They are a lot like the blue buses, but make fewer stops and offer guaranteed seating. They usually run to the suburbs outside city limits. There is a price to be paid for the comfort, however; fare is 1,700 won.
  • Cash passengers must pay another full fare whenever transferring between different bus lines, or between the bus and the subway.
For those who know the pre-2004 bus system in Seoul, some buses display the old route number (or state that it's running a brand-new route) under the current route number. But don't count on finding such information.

T-Money Smart Card

Long-term visitors and residents have a much better way of utilizing the mass transit system, while saving money. The T-Money smart debit card was introduced in 2004, at the same time the bus network was reformed, for a number of reasons which I will mention.

The T-Money card is not magnetic, but a smart chip card, so it will not be demagnetized by cell phones or purses. A T-Money card will cost 2,500 won initially, plus any value one wishes to store, but can be refilled and used indefinitely. Some locals also get credit cards that have a T-Money chip built into them; they will pay the fare each month with their credit card bills.

T-Money can be bought at convenience stores and most subway stations, as well as at some tourist information centers. Very few machines sell T-Money, so it's necessary to ask the selling clerk in broken Korean. :) However, refills are easily done by automated machines at subway stations, and those machines can function in English.

One benefit of T-Money is that the rider gets a 100 won discount from the cash fare; a basic subway ride (or a ride on a green or a blue bus) will cost 900 won. But an even bigger benefit is that it's possible to transfer for free between bus and subway, and between buses. My meditation commute involves either two buses or a bus and the subway, so this free transfer benefit is saving me a bundle. When a free transfer is used, the fare is calculated on the distance of my entire combined trip.

There are some limits to free transfers. It's not allowed to board the same-numbered bus twice (or exit and immediately re-enter the subway, which counts as one giant bus line); doing so will deduct another base fare. Also, while it's possible to take up to five consecutive transfers, each transfer must take under 30 minutes (60 minutes between midnight and 5AM).

To ensure proper fare calculations and free transfers, it's necessary to touch the fare terminal with the card, on top of each subway turnstile at entrance and at exit. On the buses, it is necessary to touch the fare terminal next to the front door when boarding, and touch the fare terminal again at the rear door right before exiting. No physical touch is necessary; it's often enough to keep the T-Money card inside a wallet or a purse, and touch the whole wallet or purse to the terminal. A beep, and a display of the deducted fare and the remaining card value will indicate a successful transaction. An audible announcement (with zero deducted fare) will indicate a free transfer. On the bus, in a pinch, a T-Money passenger may even board through the rear door and/or exit through the front door; as long as a terminal is touched and proper fare is paid, it's completely acceptable, though not encouraged.

T-Money is being expanded into many other uses. Some taxicabs accept T-Money as a form of payment, and so do some convenience stores.

Special Considerations

On the subway, some cars (usually the middle two) may be designated as low-level heating/cooling. Korail also reserves the first and the last cars of some Line 1 trains for women, the elderly, and the disabled only between 6:30 AM and 9:00 AM. Such cars are clearly marked - though in Korean only.

T-Money can be bought in reduced-fare versions for children and students, though pre-registration is required to prevent fraud. When processing reduced-fare cards, the terminals beep differently, so an adult using a reduced-fare card will easily be caught red-handed.

Senior citizens (65+ with proper Senior ID issued by the national government) and veterans of active warfare are entitled to free rides on the subway anytime. They must present proper identification at the ticket counter, however; in any case, foreigners don't qualify anyway.

Fare-beating (jumping the fare barriers, an adult using a child card, etc.) will be punished by a fine equal to 30 times the applicable fare.

Foreigners on short-term visits can buy the Seoul City Card, a special version of T-Money with unlimited mass transit travel for 1 to 3 days, access to the Seoul City Tour buses, and museum discounts.