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Transit Futures: Korea Offers ‘Out-Of-The-Box’ Ideas

Neal Peirce / Jul 20 2012

For Release Sunday, July 22, 2012
© 2012 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeirceSEOUL, South Korea — Our friends in this Asian nation have developed a sheaf of ingenious transportation strategies.

My personal favorite: Elevated bike freeways. The idea is to foster cycling in busy world cities by constructing two-directional bike tracks, enclosed in glass tubes mounted above commuter routes. Commuters could pedal in or out of town, no red lights or threatening trucks, in temperate-controlled comfort. Likely result: fewer cars on the roads, reduced carbon emissions, and a healthier population.

Another idea: automated container transport. Why should trucks laden with massive containers clog highways, block drivers’ views, and exacerbate traffic perils? Why not substitute a totally separated, high-efficiency, non-stop conveyor belt? Here in Korea it could run roughly parallel to the ever-more-crowded 260-mile superhighway stretch between Busan, the country’s busy seaport, and Seoul, its capital and top city. Parallel opportunities exist worldwide.

Next idea: Spread out the fearsome roadway demands that often clog motorways around major holidays. How? By advance reservations, much like an airplane booking. Motorists would go on-line to book their own time slot, entering the tollgates during their chosen hour. The reservation system would automatically restrict the available slots, by hour, to a reasonable traffic flow. Variable hour pricing could spread out demand and give every driver a chance to avoid tie-ups.

These are just some of the liberating, fresh ideas that have emerged from South Korea’s Transport Institute (KOTI), a 27-year old government-funded entity that keeps the statistics on all varieties of transportation in the country but is also allowed to think freely — and report to the public — about potential future modes and formulas.

Korea’s early and bold initiatives, KOTI officials recently told a delegation of Asian rim journalists organized by the East-West Center in Honolulu, have been essential ingredients of the dramatic transformation of South Korea. From one of Asia’s poorest countries at its birth in 1948, it’s been able to star in recent years as an “Asian tiger,” one of the world’s wealthiest nations.

A top example of national foresight: the early decision to construct the Seoul-Busan expressway, linking the primarily industrial, coastal and Seoul/metro portions of the new nation. It was an act of faith: standard cost-benefit analysis wouldn’t have justified the roadway. In 1970, the first year of full operation, the traffic flow was 150,000 vehicles; today it’s more than 18 million.

Other key decisions followed over the years — to open the Busan port, now one of the world’s largest; to inaugurate a country-spanning high-speed rail line; to invest heavily in the Incheon airport (which now receives world’s best ratings). Roadway HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) lanes were introduced early, likewise a bus rapid transit system (now 84 miles long, in 13 corridors).

Moral: South Korea has consistently been a step ahead of the game with timely investments that pay off in national productivity — quite the opposite of America’s foot-dragging on new infrastructure for 40-plus years now.

And today’s no time to rest on one’s national oars, the KOTI planners insist. Korea’s official goal, declared in 2008, is a low-carbon, green-growth future, built on response to global climate change.

The planners note that dominant forms of transportation (using the U.S. model) have had roughly 50-year runs. Examples: canals in the 1830s, railways in the 1890s, roads and airplanes in the 20th this century. What’s next for urban transportation worldwide? The theme, they speculate, might be electric cars, high efficiency energy systems, or a mixing of those technologies with high density and land regeneration.

But whatever systems evolve, they believe information technology will be at its center. This explains their blue-sky speculation, inventive ideas of new modes.

One idea they’re exploring is “ECO-driving” — a set of technical adjustments in car manufacturing, combined with driver education, to reduce the fuel-guzzling quick start and acceleration that accounts for some 60 percent of fuel use. Another new approach: an intermodal “cloud transport system” — defined as peer-to-peer short-term loans of other subscribers’ bikes or autos, at agreed locations, using a verified Internet exchange and fee system’ (A Paris-based system, “Buzzcar,” invented by Zipcar inventor Robin Chase, is already in operation).

And then, to make big public transit centers less confusing and off-putting, the planners suggest a smartphone information system that would guide a person through the facility, step-by-step, to reach any goal from a specific train or bus to a specific exit. Potential result: more people comfortable using transit, fewer cars on the road.

Color any of these ideas as you will, their basic hue is clearly green, in terms of saved energy and thus fewer carbon emissions.

And, in most cases, there’s a social payoff too: enhancing safe and accommodating personal contact among the new systems’ users.

While the devil’s always in the details of new endeavors, one suspects the Koreans are exploring ideas with exciting potential worldwide.

Neal Peirce’s e-mail is

For reprints of Neal Peirce’s column, please contact Washington Post Permissions, c/o PARS International Corp.,, fax 212-221-9195. For newspaper syndication sales, Washington Post Writers Group, 202-334-5375,


  1. Mayraj Fahim
    Posted July 20, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    If you are still in Seoul, you may want to find out what happened with their regionalization policy? See below:
    “Korea’s near-miraculous rise in prosperity since the
    Korean war has been disproportionately based on the growth of Seoul where the great majority of the
    nation’s universities, research institutes, and productive power are concentrated. The government has
    recently resolved upon major decentralisation or rebalancing away from the Seoul metropolitan region
    and is attempting to pursue a multi-pronged strategy to shift resources and new growth away from
    greater Seoul, encouraging regional authorities to assume responsibility for the mobilisation and
    coordination of efforts for development in each region. ”
    Supporting the contribution of Higher Education Institutions to Regional Development
    Peer Review Report:
    Republic of Korea

  2. Mayraj Fahim
    Posted July 20, 2012 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    According to Busan website this has been the development:
    Busan Innovation City
    It would be interesting to see how economic development was boosted in the areas outside Seoul.

  3. Posted July 20, 2012 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

    I visited Vietnam last year and saw the ominous signs that it is following the Chinese and US models of accommodating ever more cars by building more and wider roads and highways. At least in Saigon, where the tropical weather hardly varies month to month, perhaps it would make more sense for the government to buy every adult an electric scooter every four years while simultaneously adopting a policy of maintaining the current urban road network. Private automobiles would be allowed but their operation would be subject to demand management charges and techniques. All of the money that would have been spent demolishing parts of the city and building new arterials and highways could be invested in education, communications infrastructure and environmental remediation and innovation.
    Just a thought…..

  4. Posted July 21, 2012 at 6:10 am | Permalink

    These ideas should go to every news media in the USA and straight to the White House. President Obama has probably been groping for an innovative program idea or he would have come out with it by now. Building these fantastic facilities for truckload size transportation and bikeways would be his immediate way to create a New Deal for job seekers.