Bus redesigns aren’t a new idea. When Seoul – a city pursuing a car-first approach to surface transportation to satisfy the dreams of an increasingly wealthy population – faced plummeting bus ridership in the early 2000s, the city decided to act.
Thanks to bus route redesigns and an extensive network of dedicated lanes, transit ridership surged, helping Seoul return space to people, overcome the seductive status-setting appeal of car ownership, and restore a stunning downtown creek (that had, ironically, been paved over by a highway). Here’s how they did it.
Seoul’s transit death spiral wasn’t unique
By 2002, Koreans’ per-capita income had increased 40-fold from 1970 levels, and soccer fans attending that year’s World Cup (which South Korea co-hosted) enjoyed an extensive, ultra-modern subway system that the economic turnaround made possible.
But the plethora of private companies running the city’s bus system had continued managing it without any government oversight, other than standardizing fares according to law. Routes often provided meandering, duplicative service and companies did little to address cavernous gaps in the network. To make matters worse, the private companies’ operators neglected elderly and disabled customers.
Meanwhile, car ownership skyrocketed as vehicles became more affordable. Riders abandoned buses in droves as reliability continued to decrease.
In 2002, average bus loads were less than half what they were in 1989. Private operators were going bankrupt, and the government subsidies required to keep remaining bus services running had multiplied by 10 in just three years.
The secret sauce: a massive public information campaign.