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On removing freeways and reforming buses: an interview with Dr Kee Yeon Hwang, president of the Korea Transport Institute

On removing freeways and reforming buses: an interview with Dr Kee Yeon Hwang, president of the Korea Transport Institute

Dr. Kee Yeon Hwang, president of the Korea Transport Institute, at the Hotel Vancouver on March 28, 2011.

I got a chance to speak with Dr. Kee Yeon Hwang, president of the Korea Transport Institute this Monday!

As you may know, he’s giving two talks this week about his work in Seoul: one on removing a major freeway to restore a downtown stream, and one on reforming Seoul’s bus system. (See this post for the talk details!)

Dr. Hwang talked with me about those projects and how they came about, plus what he’s up to now, which includes high-speed rail plans and elevated bike freeways in Korea. Read on for more!

You have two talks coming up this week: could you tell me a bit about them? The first is about the restoration of Cheonggyecheon stream?

The first one is about the stream restoration in the downtown, in the central business district, and it’s kind of a very long story. But I’ll try to make it short.

It’s a very important transportation corridor, carrying about 168,000 vehicles during the day. But under the freeway, we had a very clean stream which was covered by the government in the 1960s and early 1970s. We weren’t skilled at managing sewage, so it was covered. It became a very important corridor linking the eastern side of Seoul with downtown.

If we demolished it, there were some worries that it might create some very big traffic problems in the downtown. But we said this is a new paradigm.

So several guys got together to do an initial study in 2000. I was one of the members. We had a study group that gathered several times. Each field presented their expected impact after the demolition of the freeway. We came up with a very nice result that if it was demolished, traffic congestion would not be so severe: on the other hand, there were a lot of positives that would come out of it.

It would lower the temperature in downtown. It would give us a nice breeze with the wind along the streams. And it would boom the downtown real estate. Redevelopment had stopped because no one wanted to build near elevated freeways. It would also create less traffic. People would have no choice but to move to mass transportation services. And it would provide a better environment for pedestrians.

We decided to give this outcome to mayoral candidate Lee Myung-bak. He chose this project as a major campaign proposal. In 2002, he was elected mayor, and on the first day of the inauguration, and he said he would make it happen within his term, which is about four years. So we started the restoration bureau at city hall, and a citizens committee, with stakeholders, those with businesses along the corridor, professionals dealing with traffic congestion, and NGOs sensitive about environmental issues. They created a research team, which I was in charge of as a director.

We started right away on July 1, the mayor’s inauguration day. In one year we had a master plan for restoration. Construction lasted about 27 months, and it was completed in October 2005. People showed up to see what really happened and were very much amazed to see the vehicle traffic gone and clean water there.

Then we followed with downtown revitalization plans. We had a good environment for redevelopment, and we set up city guidelines for how they have to develop the area, since it’s core to the downtown and a historic place surrounded by mountains. We do not want to allow too many high rises and big buildings. We wanted to preserve our historic relics and legacy, which was really complicated. And we wanted to build more city housing so people will stay in the central business district.

It was a new paradigm plan, with an emphasis on conservation and preservation. It affected a lot of people in Seoul, and all over Korea, people in other cities asked people to restore their streams and demolish flyovers. Previous plans for flyovers were opposed by residents, since they know that putting in flyovers wouldn’t resolve traffic issues and it would worsen housing values. There was nationwide strong opposition to flyovers and restoring streams.

Was there a lot of opposition? It sounds like everyone was on side with the project.

We did a survey prior to restoring the stream and the majority of Seoul, 80 per cent, wanted to go for the project. I think there were economic prosperity and people had travelled abroad, and they knew vehicular traffic doesn’t necessarily guarantee a good quality of life. It was time to try something different.

There was opposition from historic restoration groups, as there were stone bridges under the covered bridge, and we had to relocate one. We were very sensitive to vendors: there were 3,000 illegal street vendors along the area, and 320 legal merchants. The city had to do something for them. Ultimately, we made space for the street vendors in markets downtown, and with the legal vendors, we gave them incentives, money for declining businesses, covering the costs for kids’ school registrations. They decided to let construction stay and it was mostly fine.

The traffic engineers and civil engineers were also opposed. Their companies made money by building things: they never made money by demolishing anything. They were very afraid that once demolishing starts, it would dissipate all across the country and they would lose their projects. Their business would be much smaller. They harshly opposed the mayor and the project. It was a big fight, even if it was professionals fighting.

I suggested to the mayor that we set up monitoring groups and we have to verify the arguments, which was that we would worsen congestion after the project. We set up a monitoring team seven days prior and continually monitored for two weeks after. And we verified that there was no traffic chaos. Overall people decided to transfer to transit instead. Driving downtown was costly. Overall, Seoul’s traffic conditions improved after construction started. The winner was very clear.

You talked a bit about how the idea came together in 2000. But where did this idea really come from?

Well, two guys were talking. One was a professor majoring in water purification, and the other was a historian. They came up with the idea of restoring Cheonggyecheon stream. So they formed that study group.

At the time, the city had a think tank called Seoul Development Institute, and I was the director of the urban transportation department. When the professor called me, he asked me to simulate the traffic if they demolished the structure. And I ran my models, and saw the exact same thing. Downtown would get a little bit of worsened traffic, but overall in Seoul, it would be improved.

Were you surprised by that?

I’ve been working in Seoul and monitoring many projects, and sometimes adding capacity doesn’t make things better. Sometimes it contributes to worsening traffic. More road space attracts more people on the street.

Just prior to the professor calling me, we had three tunnels linking the southern part of Seoul to downtown, and one was due to be shut down for some mending. Someone asked me to make a simulation to see what would happened, and I ran my model and saw some very strange things. Once we closed the tunnel, we saw some areas of the downtown traffic improved. And then construction started, and we found the simulation almost came true in reality. I saw that many links encourages more routes. Once we got rid of some roads, that might reduce people’s willingness to travel downtown by car. Cheonggyecheon stream came to the same result.

It’s a paradoxical idea. Many colleagues were against me, they said “He’s exaggerating,” and we had some big fights. It was difficult, but I was sure. At least we could have a clear stream in downtown. We might have a better quality of life after it was done. Traffic can be worsened—it’s been getting worse since the 1980 Korea Seoul Olympics. Whatever we did, it doesn’t really turn out to be effective. So it’ll be worse continuously. So this was a chance to try something new, and if traffic still got worse we would at least have a clear stream. I would not lose anything. We had something important to restore.

Seoul had experience prior to the Cheonggyecheon restoration. Samsung had planned to build a high rise in Seoul, near another filthy stream. They had a willingness to clean it up. So they put in their money to clear the stream together with the regional government office, and they found out that their real estate price went up. It was the number one housing complex in Korea. So they found stream restoration had lots of unseen results. So that told me we’re going to lose traffic, but we would gain something very precious back into the city.

Can we talk a bit about reforming the bus system in Seoul, the subject of your second talk?

Bus reform was triggered by the Cheonggyecheon restoration. It would reduce road space, so we needed alternatives for people to transfer to. We needed to make a better environment for public transportation.

We had several underground subway lines. That really helped. And we reformed the buses, which were mostly going to downtown, but it was not efficiently implemented. Downtown was very congested not just because of too many cars, but also because of too many buses. We had 10,000 buses cramming through little, narrow spaces in the downtown.

So the reform project started in 2003, and it finished in July 1, 2004, a year and three months prior to restoration of Cheonggyecheon stream.

What were the major things you did?

There were so many things. The first one we did was create median bus lanes.

Sometimes buses would run away without getting customers. So customers would push into the street to catch the bus. That reduced road capacity. We also had a lot of vendors on the sidewalks, because we had the demand. And there were taxi stops and loading zones all in the same lane. They were mixed together. There were traffic problems. So we moved them to the centre so they cannot really get away from their designated lines. We called it bus rapid transit. We gave incentives for faster running of the buses along the median. This was a very first important change

We also introduced a reduced transfer fare—if you transferred within 30 minutes from one vehicle to another, it would be free. Previously you had to pay when you transferred to another vehicle. This would reduce the burden of using transit. It was so popular among college students. That really attracted many people to buses and subways. So ridership increased. We had a smartcard, which would know how you were travelling.

Our buses were also not classified by function. The colour and shape did not differentiate the lines. So we classified them into four different types: circular in downtown, commuter, community services for short distances and major boulevards. They had different colours. We also changed the number system so that destinations and routes were more obvious, and people could really tell which bus goes where. [Editor’s note: You might remember Jarrett Walker talking about the new colour coded Korean lines in this talk from August 2010.]

So what were the impacts?

We had 90 different private operators, and the city did “semi public ownership,” meaning that the government was willing to support their deficit if the private companies opened their revenues to us. Then the city would know how much they took to operate and if they ran on certain routes, they were guaranteed revenue from the government. It launched and everyone was happy at the time. The government also increased the fare a little bit. They had an added burden for supporting the bus companies, but people didn’t really complain, because of the reduced fare transfer policy.

Ridership increased. Eventually people gave up their cars. When congestion got worse, they switched to mass transit, and the new lanes made the buses faster than the cars.

How is it now?

We’ve been monitoring it for six to seven years now and we found out there are problems with the bus operators. They’re making no effort to increase their ridership, they just report what they earn and the government subsidizes them with more and more money. The government also didn’t increase the fare in the proper manner. There was opposition from the public. So this year, we gave one trillion won—I think that’s 1 billion dollars—to subsidize public transit. There might have to be another big reform.

It sounds like the strength of the government really helped a lot of these initiatives go through.

It was the leadership of the mayor that did it. He eventually became president after he was so successful with Cheonggyecheon stream. His leadership was so pivotal for the success of the project.

What are you working on now?

After master planning the Cheonggyecheon stream project, I left to work at a university in 2005. Then after Mr Lee, the mayor, became president of Korea, he appointed me to lead the Korea Transport Institute, which is a government research arm in transportation, including aviation and logistics. I’m working on how to make a green revolution in transportation. I’ve been travelling around the world to talk about bus reform and our green pursuit of transportation.

What are the projects that are part of this green revolution?

The bike, it’s a new initiative. The new government has taken a stand. I’ve proposed elevated bike freeways. Cars have highways because they run faster: why can’t bikes have it? They would be elevated in the median sections of the road. I proposed that we reserve two metres in the middle of the road, and we put up columns and have the elevated bikeways. So you can ride about 20 to 30 kilometres per hour. It can be usable for long distances, or for those who love exercise.

My idea was adopted by the president, so we launched our national bike plan, which has not just bike elevated freeways, but every section of roadspace reduced for establishing bike lanes. We also launched a public bike rental system, like in Paris. And we have launched a full river project in South Korea, where we originally intended to run boats instead of cars. Boats create much less greenhouse gas emissions. It turned out not to be achievable because some people don’t like the idea. They worry about contaminating our water quality. So it’s not yet done, but we’re going to open our first canal from the sea to river to the core of Seoul.

We also launched a very innovative plan for high-speed rail. Our high-speed rail can run up to 350 kilometres per hour. South Korea is very small: at the longest, it’s about 450 kilometres wide. So if we have 350 kilometre high speed rail, Korea can be a one city nation. We proposed a high-speed rail based new transportation system, instead of highways, to transport my country into an energy-efficient, less polluting high speed rail system. So that every city can be linked to each other, and you can commute as though you’re within a city.

That’s all I have to ask. Is there anything you would like to add?

Oh, I could go on forever, so I’d better stop here.

All right—thank you Dr. Hwang!


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