Fixing a City's Broken Public Bus Service
Seoul established a quasi-public bus system, restructured routes, created median lanes, built transfer centers, and integrated its fare system to improve service.
Worsening traffic congestion around Seoul—Republic of Korea’s capital and its largest city—made it difficult for buses to run punctual services so more people turned to using their private vehicles, which clogged the streets even further. Faced with a declining number of passengers and revenues, bus operators competed for more profitable routes, which left some commuter routes underserved.
To address these problems, the city implemented radical transport system reforms in 2004, which upgraded the bus service system and integrated it with other modes of mass transit.
This case study was adapted from Upgrading Seoul’s Public Transport: 2004 Public Transport Reform and Accessible, Affordable & Reliable: Seoul’s Bus Rapid Transit System, which are part of a series on public transportation from the Seoul Urban Solutions Agency.
With more people choosing to drive and causing further road congestion, it was critical for Seoul to improve its public bus service to become an alternative to private cars. However, Seoul's bus service faced multiple challenges: (i)) poor customer satisfaction, (ii) low service quality, (ii) privately owned and managed bus service, (iv) uncontrolled bus route changes, (v) demoralized drivers, and (vi) buses took too long to reach the bus stops.
By the early 2000s, Seoul's transport network continued to face considerable challenges on many fronts despite continuous infrastructure development. Although the city enjoyed an expanded subway network, the bus network saw mounting issues.
Heavy traffic was one of the major problems. A rapid rise in car ownership meant that 72% of the road traffic was taken up by private vehicles—79% of which carried only one passenger. The severe traffic congestion in Seoul was costing the city about 5 trillion Korean won (approximately $4.5 billion) in social and economic losses.
The Seoul Metropolitan Government implemented reforms in 2004 that upgraded the public bus service by reorganizing its operations and implementing a bus rapid transit (BRT) network.
Prior to the 2004 reform, buses were privately operated and left on their own to manage their routes—which meant they competed for and serviced mainly the profitable routes. To address the problem, the Seoul Metropolitan Government placed the bus service under public management with private bus companies servicing routes assigned to them.
With the quasi-public system, the Seoul Metropolitan Government assumed full responsibility for designating bus routes. It collected revenues from all routes and redistributed these among bus operators so the surplus revenue from busier routes subsidized the less popular but essential lines.
Seoul’s bus routes were rationalized and systemized into a more efficient hub-and-spoke structure, which connected metro/trunk lines (linking urban centers with surrounding metropolitan areas) with branch/circular lines (running within districts). Each route was closely examined to maximize operational efficiency. It eliminated delaying factors such as excessive circuits, overlaps, and disconnect with other modes of transport.
The main feature of the BRT network was the designation of exclusive median bus lanes (middle lanes of a two-way road), which allowed buses to travel faster.
Seoul had introduced curbside bus lanes in 1990 to improve the travel speed and accessibility of buses, but bus traffic was disrupted by illegal roadside parking, right-turning traffic, and traffic entering and exiting side streets.
As of 2017, 120.5 kilometers of median bus lanes have been established with 829 median bus platforms in operation. There are plans to double the length to over 223 kilometers.
Site selection for median bus lane is based on a number of factors, such as the number of lanes, overlap with subway lines, general traffic concentration, and volume as well as bus traffic volume per hour. Roads with heavy and frequent traffic congestion are given priority.
Fast and reliable bus service alone is not enough to encourage people to use buses. For users, the time and cost of getting to a bus stop and waiting for a bus is just as important as the punctuality of the bus service itself.
The new BRT system was integrated with other modes of public transport through the creation of transfer centers around the city. Major transport nodes like Seoul Station, Cheongryang-ni, Guro Digital Park and Yoido were established as transfer centers by bringing together scattered bus stops.
Transfer centers—which served as connecting hubs—were located near subway/railway/taxi stations so riders can easily transfer from buses to other modes of transport. Linkage with other modes of transport was a crucial factor if transfer is required to complete a required journey.
The 2004 reform also introduced a new fare system, which replaced the per-ride flat rates with an integrated charge. The new fare is based on combined distance traveled for up to five transfers. Essential to the integrated fare is T-Money: Seoul's proprietary electronic fare payment system. Developed through a joint venture with a private IT company, the T-money card now accounts for almost all public transport fare payments.
The city government integrated ICT-based infrastructure with transportation policy and invested heavily in establishing the new Transportation Operations and Information System (TOPIS). By integrating several sub-systems such as the Bus Management System, the electronic fare payment system (T-Money), and the Freeway Traffic Management System, TOPIS provided a central platform for the monitoring and management of traffic and public transportation operations and planning.
Numbers and facts
|4.6% increase in on-time arrival|
|9.4% increase in bus ridership (between 2004 and 2017)|
|32% increase in service satisfaction|
|80% increase in bus speed|
|30% deduction in public transport fare|
Improved bus arrival time and ridership
Since the introduction of the quasi-public system, Seoul's bus service saw a 4.6% improvement in on-time arrival. The number of bus riders also increased by about 17.8% or 710,000 to 4.7 million in 2006 from 3.99 million in 2004.
Increase in speed of buses
On average, bus traffic speed during rush hour increased by 25.9% to 19.9 kilometers per hour from 15.8 kilometers per hour. The biggest improvement was on the Dobong-Mia-ro corridor where a remarkable 81.8% rise in bus speed was observed—20 kilometers per hour from 11 kilometers per hour before the introduction of median bus lane.
Improved service punctuality
Bus service punctuality improved greatly as buses became more reliable than private cars. For the 15.8-kilometer Dobong-Mia-ro corridor, which takes an average of 44.3 minutes to pass through, bus passage time varies only by ±2.7 minutes, compared to a private car's passage time variance of ±15.3 minutes.
Easier and faster transfer
Located near subway and railway stations, the transfer centers facilitate quick and easy transfer between bus lines to different transport modes like subway, railway or taxi. At the Seoul Station Transfer Center, transfer time between bus and subway was drastically reduced from 12 minutes to three minutes while the transfer distance at Cheongnyang-ni Transfer Center was reduced to 50 meters from 300 meters.
In addition, four Metro Transfer Centers (Gupabal, Cheongwang, Gaehwa, and Dobongsan) were established along city boundaries with ample parking space to encourage those commuting into Seoul to leave their cars there and get on public transport. The “park & ride” facilities greatly reduced the number of private cars going to the city center.
Lower transport fare
Under the new integrated fare system, passengers paid on average about 30% less in public transport fare.
Extensive public engagement and participatory decision-making were key to the successful implementation of the comprehensive bus system reform. The Seoul Metropolitan Government made efforts to reach out to every stakeholder.
It established the Bus Reform Civic Committee to work with bus operators, drivers’ union and other stakeholders. The committee—with members from civil organizations, bus companies, experts, city council, and other related entities—served as an independent inter-organizational body to discuss and negotiate the reform.
Aside from various hearings and meetings, official letters were written to 16,000 bus drivers to ask for their support for the bus reform. Drivers were also given special training sessions.
In addition, Seoul learned a valuable lesson from the bus-only lanes it introduced in 1990, which failed to significantly improve travel speed because the curbside bus lanes saw bus traffic disrupted by illegal roadside parking, right-turning traffic, and traffic entering and exiting side streets.
The exclusive median bus lanes gave priority to buses on Seoul’s roads—separating them from the rest of road traffic with a dedicated lane, which allowed for faster travel.
Seoul Urban Solutions Agency. Upgrading Seoul’s Public Transport: 2004 Public Transport Reform. Seoul.
Seoul Urban Solutions Agency. Accessible, Affordable & Reliable: Seoul’s Bus Rapid Transit System. Seoul.
Urban SDG Knowledge Platform. Semi-Public Bus System.
Urban SDG Knowledge Platform. Exclusive Median Bus Lane Network.
Urban SDG Knowledge Platform. Integrated Public Transport Fare System.
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