A Tale of Two Subways
Last year, I took a rather ‘complete’ tour of one of the world’s largest metro rail transit systems, visiting all 483 metro stations in Seoul, South Korea over the course of a month.
During that month, I found rapid transit in the South Korean capital city to be not only massive, but also among the most technologically advanced in the world. At the end of the system tour, I was left questioning — even more than I already did — the way that transit development is carried out in the United States, and further, how the world’s second largest integrated rapid transit system with a daily ridership of over 8 million people, was built from nothing in just about three decades.
A total of 469-miles of track and 483-stations were built in Seoul in 30 years. By contrast, it took about the same amount of time just to plan and start construction on a 5-mile, 2-station extension for the BART rail transit system in the San Francisco Bay Area.
A bit cheeky, but also somewhat harrowing, sociecity has put together a graphical timeline comparing three decades of development on the ‘BART to San Jose‘ corridor, set against a general timeline of metro transit development in Seoul.
On most levels a comparison such as this is just not a fair fight, but neither is the BART to San Jose extension timeline abnormally slow for an American transit project these days. Certain New York City subway projects wouldn’t fare too well either.
Will Travel for Public Works Projects?
A slightly ‘wild’ suggestion typically floats around when projects such as these are slow to take, that is: we might do well to buy our local policy-makers flights to places like South Korea, Germany, Japan, China, or even Columbia… all countries which are doing many things right in terms of public transit.
It’s actually not so wild a suggestion afterall, but seems more along the lines of common sense; learn and expand your knowledge by taking a live sampling from the world around you, and you will benefit greatly for it.
This is not to say that Seoul’s implementations are perfect — they are far from it — or that building at such a rapid pace does not have its downfalls — there are many. But in contemplating possible alternatives to the daunting process of political and financial mishaps in large public works projects, it often takes a bit of looking outside our borders — and comfort zones — to figure out what others are doing right.
Now, seeing how this story is titled a Tale of Two Subways, I’ll have to get back to finishing it later, perhaps around the year 2025… when the first actual BART subway tunnel in San Jose is scheduled to be completed.
Patrick is founder and director of SocieCity, where he works with a transdisciplinary cast of creatives and sustainability practitioners to inspire social and ecological wellness through story and creative action. He has produced public artworks, gardens, workshops, films, essays, and other award-winning projects in North America, Europe, and Asia. He also serves as arts and events editor at