I love any place that I can either walk my way around or scoot my way around on well marked and abundant public transport. Seoul is huge and so walking around generally got me around one or two neighborhoods. Luckily for me, Seoul has one of the best public transport networks I've ever experienced.
Now, if you look at the map of Seoul's train system you are likely going to just blink your eyes and think "yikes!". But, my god, this system is efficient and so well marked it's ridiculous. Top that off with having an extremely easy to use payment system and you have me hooked. On the down side, it is a bit expensive compared to other transport networks we've used around the world.
One of the things I like most in a public transport system in Korea is being able to obtain a transit card, add value, and tap on and off buses or trains. There are a couple of options for what kind of card to use in Seoul if you are a visitor - you can get T Money or CashBee. We went with T Money mainly because it was what was available and had the added bonus of having cute characters on them. It turns out these characters are somehow linked to a communications company but well, mine was a cat taking a photo of her noodle dish (Instagram style). How can you resist that? So we topped up and got on board.
The other thing I like about this system is that at most bus stops (even in more rural areas) they have signage that tells you how many minutes before the bus arrives. The bus numbers are clearly posted at the stop and I never felt like we were in the wrong place. The buses themselves are well marked and even shoot out a little flag on the side that shows their number. This is super helpful because the sheer number of buses that show up at a stop at the same time makes it incredibly difficult to see the numbers listed on the front window.
People queue for the buses and trains too. It's incredible. I was told that this is a newer thing and was driven by the education provided in the run up to the Olympics. It seems the government wanted the world to see a very organized and genial group of people instead of people pushing and being disorderly. Whatever the reason, it was amazing. I love the orderliness of it all.
Without fail, the buses, trains and stations are super clean. The trains are quite quiet and were never late. We had no issues with buses being late, but they tended to be driven by men who really like to press hard on the brake. Herky jerky does not even begin to describe the motion. Oh and the brake sound itself was another thing to behold. Whew, it could be ear piercing. But these minor grievances still have me praising the system overall.
It's funny. As we sat on one quiet, well maintained train and bus after another, we wondered what South Koreans must think of the "L" in Chicago or the subway in New York. Their poor ears must suffer greatly from the grating of the wheels against the metal rails. And they probably don't want to touch anything in the cars either. And while I love those two cities and their access to public transport, I have seen the promised land of what public transport can be thanks to Korea. I think everywhere should aspire to the transport system as implemented in South Korea. I definitely have upped my expectations of public transport.
Why Public Transport in Korea is the best
Easy to buy & use transit cards: not only are they easy to obtain, they are cute and have faces on them.
Well posted transit routes: every bus stop we saw had a list of the approaching buses and the amount of time we would expect to wait.
Volume and variety: if you see your bus is going to be a bit of a wait, there is almost always a few other routes that can get you there.
People Queue: this is no surprise given how orderly Seoul is, but apparently it wasn’t always so orderly.
Trains and buses are clean: without fail the transit systems in Korea were super clean, and there are tons of laws posted about how to behave and what you can’t bring onto the buses or trains. Like balloons for instance.