What Does a Truly Modern Subway System Look Like? Try Seoul

As a global metropolis, Seoul, South Korea, is comparable to New York in many respects. Seoul has about 10 million people in a metropolitan region of roughly 24 million. Like 20th century New York, contemporary Seoul is built around its subway system, which has several hundred stations on more than a dozen lines and daily passenger traffic similar to that of New York City.

Although Seoul is an ancient city, it is new in its present form. In 1960, with a population of 2.5 million, Seoul was more like an overgrown village, with slums lining the Han river and few public services. It was still struggling to recover from the civil war that had torn the country apart.

Today, Seoul has skyscrapers, subways and sidewalks, with walkable streets and parks. Its first subway line opened in 1974. But the city's evolution has not been an unbroken one. It has stopped and started, repeatedly, as it has worked to conjure up the best image of itself.

In the last decade, Seoul has remade itself into a greener, more humane and more people-oriented place. The city has revamped and reorganized its subway and bus system, expanded sidewalks and plazas for pedestrians at the expense of cars, torn down a center-city freeway and implemented a bike-sharing system. It has its own version of congestion pricing.

On a recent visit to Seoul, I got a firsthand look at these changes. There are lessons here for New York and the tri-state region, not so much in copying Seoul, but in seeing what is possible and as a catalyst to examine our own plans for renewal and improvement.

The city's subway system is especially impressive. It offers efficiency and an attention to the passenger experience that is unusual for a system of this size and range. From the wave of an iPhone or Samsung smartphone across a turnstile to gain entry, to the numbered entrances in and out of the stations, to the glass doors across the platforms, to the frequency of the service and the cleanliness of the heavily used trains (and the bathrooms in the stations), the subway is state of the art.

The sense of ease starts when you enter the first turnstile and can pay by a half dozen methods, including credit card, smartphone, a tiny computer-equipped disc or a single-pay card. The system charges by distance, starting at about $1 for the first 10 kilometers, and an additional 10 cents for every five kilometers afterward. South Korea's per capita income still trails that of the U.S., and fares are correspondingly lower.

Once inside, signs in Korean and English guide riders throughout the system. On the platform, glass platform screening doors block noise and wind from passing trains. It's a stark contrast to the sense of stress found in a busy New York subway station as trains enter and exit stations.

Inside the trains, televisions show the next stations. There is universal Wi-Fi access on the trains and in stations. Off the train, exits from stations onto the street are numbered, with signs showing the way to them starting at platform level. This comes in handy when being given directions to a particular address or making plans to meet someone at an exit.

It's easy to say these changes are mostly because the Seoul system is new, and could start fresh. But most of these amenities were added on to the existing system. Lines didn't originally have platform screening doors. They were retrofitted, and paid for by long-term leases on the advertisements over the doors themselves. The "wave and pay" system was instituted as part of a major overhaul that required cooperation among the four separate institutions that run the subway and commuter rail lines, as well as the bus system, which has private operators.

As with New York, the history of Seoul's subway system is messy. The system expanded over successive decades, and at least four separate state-controlled companies were created to build and run different lines. This arrangement grew out of various political battles, including the nation's transition from dictatorship to democracy in the 1980s and 1990s. The separate companies still exist, but were integrated into a common fare system that includes the bus network, itself run by subsidized private operators.

The city continues to experiment with different financing strategies. In the latest move, a private company, owned mostly by the Korean division of Paris-based Veolia, operates the new # 9 line. The line runs beautifully, but fares are higher and disputes have broken out between the city and the private company over when and how much it can raise fares.

New York City is already moving in the direction that Seoul and other cities such as London, Stockholm and Paris have taken, which might be called the people-centered metropolis. That Seoul has arguably advanced further along than New York gives ammunition to proponents of the idea that the humane metropolis is not just a passing fad, but a direction for global cities that is here for a very long time.