Seoul’s Lessons for Seattle Transit and Land Use

Metro and bus rapid transit lines meet in Seoul. (Photo by author)

 In 1960, just several years after the devastation of the Korean War and with 35 years of armed Japanese occupation in the recent past, Korea was in such dire straits that a comparatively wealthy Kenya  extended relief efforts to the peninsular nation. Now, World Bank data puts South Korea at a purchasing power parity adjusted GDP per capita income of $35,750, sandwiched comfortably between Spain and the Czech Republic. Explanations ranging from the existential terror of North Korea to Korea’s lack of natural resources are commonly given as reasons for South Korea’s meteoric rise from poverty; however, often unaccounted for in this development narrative are Seoul’s world class system of mass transit and its dense urban living arrangements.

A recent working paper by Chang-Tai Hsieh and Enrico Moretti from the University of Chicago and Cal Berkeley respectively suggests that from 1964 to 2009 restrictive zoning ordinances may have lowered America’s GDP (gross domestic product) growth by as much as 50%.

This boils down to an issue of supply and demand. By limiting the amount of housing stock that can be built on a given plot of land, local zoning laws have artificially lowered the maximum population density of most major American cities even while demand for living space in these cities has skyrocketed. This has diminished geographic mobility (the ability to easily move from one city to another) and has directly led to needlessly excessive rent and property prices. Exacerbating this problem is strong evidence suggesting that productivity and population density rise in tandem with density exerting a multiplier effect on economic growth.

To better understand how Seoul has managed to evade this problem by achieving a population density twice that of New York City, I spoke with professor of Urban Sciences at the University of Seoul, Shin Lee.

Seoul is about four times as dense as Seattle. (Photo by author)

Lee credits much of Seoul’s earlier success to its then authoritarian government. Noting that oftentimes beneficial policies can prove immensely unpopular among entrenched local interests, Lee said, “Authoritarian regimes can make an amenable environment for implementation.”

Lee continued by saying that although a policy may be well crafted, “public acceptability [can] become a barrier to implementation.”

However, Lee went on to state that many of the more recent improvements in Seoul’s system of mass transit, including expansions of regional rail lines and Seoul’s bus fleet, are the product of democratic institutions, particularly Seoul’s mayoralty. Invoking the role of public voice, Lee explained that a combination of strong political will on the part of elected officials and sensitivity to the needs of regular citizens can combine to effect positive change in the public sphere.

While Seattle and Seoul share little common-ground in terms of geography, history, culture, and demographics, there are some areas where Seattle could take a page from Seoul’s developmental handbook. Less restrictive zoning ordinances and a commitment to building dense, mixed use developments would almost certainly provide a boon to housing affordability, geographic mobility, increased use of mass transit, and a lower reliance on personal vehicle ownership.

Regarding mass transit, Lee touted the benefits of improved busing relative to a costly, fixed heavy rail system. In order to reap those benefits, Lee believes that buses will first need to undergo an image overhaul.

Lee noted that by improving the comfort, frequency, and punctuality of Seoul’s bus system, Seoul has been able to lure away a large portion of middle class former single occupancy vehicle drivers. I can personally attest that not only are Korean buses more comfortable and more punctual than their Seattle counterparts, but, on a more personal level, I have never been threatened with physical violence while riding on a bus in Seoul; I cannot say the same for Seattle.

Seoul’s bus system provides an excellent complement to its Metro system. Jeongja station provides an example. (Photo by author)

Moreover, Lee pointed out that strongly enforced exclusive bus lanes leading from Seoul’s suburbs and satellite cities into the city center have proved to be a strong incentive in favor of mass transit. The Seoul metropolitan area has nearly 100 miles of exclusive bus lanes and many of these bus corridors have met the internationally recognized standards of the  Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) rating system. By looking at diverse factors ranging from dedicated right-of-way, off-board fare collection, and easily accessible boarding platforms, BRT comprehensively evaluates bus systems for speed, efficiency, and user satisfaction. While Seattle already has a number of bus only lanes and it is on the edge of BRT excellence with its Madison bus corridor, these are currently limited in scope and could benefit from further expansion and refinement.

Fortunately, Sound Transit 3, which is currently being implemented over a 25-year span, promises several BRT corridors to be phased in starting in 2019. While Sound Transit 3 promises significant expansions in light rail and rapid bus service, Seattle still has a long way to go before it can match the inter-connectivity and overall density of Seoul’s transit system.

Of course, mass transit is not cheap and a sudden expansion of Seattle’s bus fleet may be beyond the fiscal means of the city at present. Beginning in the early 2000s, Seoul re-organized a number of privately operating bus companies under the auspices of the Seoul Metropolitan Government. Opening mass transit to private companies and coordinating and enforcing a uniform fare, set routes, and schedules was an incredible but ultimately worthwhile endeavor that Seattle may consider emulating.

Lee also mentioned the importance of congestion charging—a useful tool for accounting for negative externalities inflicted by our current transportation system which heavily subsidizes the true cost of driving. While some may criticize congestion charging for disproportionately hurting low- and middle-income workers, an increased commitment to public transit will greatly alleviate this pressure.

Ultimately, Lee believes that strong political leadership is critical to the creation of any comprehensive mass transit system owing to the fact that, “citizens think individually, not collectively.” However, Lee cautioned against any attempt to copy Seoul’s transit system wholesale. Having lived extensively in Korea, America, and Britain, Lee is no stranger to the importance that culture plays in the role of policy-making. Echoing common sentiment, Lee believes America has a more individualistic culture than Korea, one that may resist heavy, top-down planning. However, Seattle does not need to become a miniature Seoul (nor should it) for it to adopt some of Seoul’s more successful practices.

As of 2017, Seattle is the fastest growing major city in the nation. For Seattle to manage its growing pains, it should take a page out of Seoul’s game book and embrace high-density mixed-use housing developments, invest and expand its current bus operations, experiment with congestion charging in the city center, and possibly open up mass transit to private investment and involvement. The policy changes needed are neither novel nor extreme, but they will require an active, organized citizenry and responsive, strong willed leadership by our elected officials. 

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Talon Abernathy grew up in Kent, Washington and attended the University of Washington where he majored in Political Science with a concentration in Political Economy. He currently lives and works in the greater Seoul metropolitan area.

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A small nitpick: purchasing power parity should not be used to compare the wealth of different countries.

PPP GDP is far more effected by the size of a country’s population than it is by actual economic productivity. According to PPP, all of the richest countries in the world are also the most populous. In reality, often smaller countries have more overall economic activity than larger countries due to higher productivity.

The reason is that with PPP, every “good” of the same type has the same value. A car is a car is a car. There is no distinction between a 20 year old hunk of junk and a Porsche. There is no difference between eating at Taco Bell or Lola’s. It captures the amount of economic transactions happening, but not their value.

PPP has come into vogue in recent years because it lets people make hysterical exaggerations about the size of the Chinese economy. According to PPP China is the largest economy in the world, even surpassing the entire European Union. In reality, productivity in China is low enough that despite having 4 times the population of the US, it still has only about 60% the GDP.

Howard Metzenberg

I think you are describing total PPP GDP here, which does indeed exaggerate the size of the economies of very populous countries, like China and India, and for the very reasons you have given.

However, the article actually refers to GDP per capita adjusted for PPP, which is quite a different statistic and tends to instead overstate the wealth of very small countries with undiversified economies. Typical countries that rank highly this way include Lichtenstein, Monaco, Singapore, and Kuwait.

There are indeed reasons why GDP per capita adjusted for PPP is not a perfect ranking of the wealth of nations. The obvious one is that consumers in each country consume a different basket of goods, so whose basket should you use for cost of living comparisons? Economics has a whole literature about why price indexes are inaccurate.

But the article actually uses this statistic quite well, comparing three mid sized developed nations with GDP per capita levels comparable to OECD averages: Spain, the Czech Republic, and South Korea. I have been to all three of these countries in the last ten years. All three were economically devasted by the 30 Years War of the 20th Century (1914-1945) and/or the Cold War (1945-1989). And all three have made incredible gains since partly by focusing on urbanization and building great transit systems, with major cites (Madrid, Prague, Seoul) anchored by new public transportation networks.


While I agree with some of these statements there are many that miss the reality of life in Korea. I have been living in Seoul since 1994. My first stay in Korea was in 1977-1978, then again from 1980-1982. The quick rise of the economy in Korea was due to two factors. Dictatorship and monopolies. Democracy created the middle class and greed is now destroying it.

As for housing here in Korea one has to have seen what the city looked like prior to the first high rise apartment. It was packed with tiny walled-in houses that had up to three generations of families living in them. There was no color other than brown or black due to the black out methods. The country was still very agrarian. But with huge factories being built around and in Seoul the exodus from farms to the city began quickly. There were no city planners and no one cared about pollution. Mud/concrete huts and lean-too’s were everywhere. The Han river was a constant brown color and severely polluted.

There wasn’t enough land to expand on since the farmers had a very strong political control. So there was no where to go but up. And today you see these tall dense apartment complexes where thousands of people live in them. Apartments were cheap compared to houses and easy to live in. Not to mention this allowed for families to leave their multi-generation houses and separate apartments.

To make a long story short apartments today are sought after for their proximity to major cities where the best schools and jobs are. Koreans culture and lack of diversity allows for this close cohabitation with very few problems. Add to this the addition of small shops, restaurants, coffee shops, and schools in each apartment complex, you have a small sense of community.

The US tried to build large apartment complexes in the major cities and they all failed horribly. Middle income people wanted houses not boxes to live in. So the rich build large apartments with security guards while the liberal governments build small boxes for the poor with no security. Crime was inevitable.

As for the transportation sector. Well I live in an apartment overlooking the river and the two main arteries. They can be bumper to bumper during the commuter times and most cars have only one occupant. Yes the subway is very good and the buses not so good. The public transportation system is very extensive and expanding everyday, but it was due to the political will of the government and not the people that created it. Each new mayor has a plan for doing something that gets their name in the history books and structures. But planning and development is always lacking. Korea is a country of the façade and not the support structure needed.

It is very easy for foreigners to come here and see the façade and listen to marketing themes and be romanticized by it all. After all Korea is now known for its beauty products, cosmetic surgery, and ever changing K-pop culture. What is lost is the back story everyone hides.