A grid of 6-lane boulevards, a reputation for undisciplined driving, day long traffic jams, a newly rich country with a thriving car industry, very few people using bicycles for everyday transport…not promising?
So don’t read the guidebooks, ignore the gloomy reports, instead look at what’s actually happening on the streets. Those boulevards have 3 metre wide sidewalks, they are not crowded and nobody minds cyclists weaving in and out of the pedestrians. On the road itself the traffic is calm, flowing in an unhurried way between the traffic-light controlled junctions on smooth tarmac. The big spaces between the main roads are a network of small streets and alleys where cyclists and pedestrians are safe and cars make slow progress on sufferance. The city has started to develop a cycling infrastructure and what they have done is very promising, in a few years Seoul could be a perfect cycling city, even now it feels a lot easier than many places in Britain.
Of course you have to use your eyes and tune in to the way people use the streets. Each country is subtly different, In Beijing the pedestrian is king and the rules are treated as a kind of backdrop with no reason not to jump a red light if you know it’s safe. In Seoul it’s different, the main rules are observed scrupulously but there’s a lot of imagination and flexibility at work in the gaps.
This is partly a matter of necessity and partly due to the creativity of a third class of road user operating between pedestrians and the regular cars, buses and trucks. Because the 4-wheeled traffic is so congested and subject to delay a parallel system of 2-wheeled haulage businesses has emerged. Riding modified scooters and motorbikes, with elaborate cargo racks on the back, these guys are the true aristocrats of the Seoul roads. They have worked out a whole array of strategies that use sidewalks, minor roads and pedestrian crossings to get round the bottlenecks.
(May 2010 – I’ve recently discovered an amusing satire on Seoul motorbike culture in the Dokdo Is Ours Blog, which has borrowed my photo to illustrate the story, very glad to be of service)
Guide book writers like to get in a froth about the way vehicles tend to take short cuts across the sidewalks in Korea but it really isn’t a big deal. They don’t use the sidewalks as extra lanes, rather the motorbikes will swing onto the sidewalk just before a junction to take advantage of the pedestrian crossing which allows them to make an otherwise impossible turn and it’s usual to see three or four of them lined up with the pedestrians waiting for the lights to change. Nobody minds, the bikers drive carefully and they tend to give way to walkers.
All this creates a ready-made environment for cyclists. You can follow the same strategies as the motorbikes, cars are not surprised to see a 2-wheeler slip through a gap and appear in front and as long as you ride with the same confidence and alertness you would use in any city you can get around quickly and freely. And of course you can explore all those little sidestreets where real life goes on.
I arrived in Seoul early on a Saturday after an overnight flight. The very convenient and luxurious airport bus service dropped me at the Korea City Air Terminal just a block away from my hotel, in the Coex/Samseong district south of the river, so I had a relatively simple first ride to get used to the basics. I had the day free so I quickly headed out to see how I might get around.
Thanks to David of the Cycle Seoul blog I had a copy of a Seoul cycle route map which is rather small scale but very useful showing all the “official” cycle routes in the city. Together with the quite good street map supplied by my hotel and the local information in the Rough Guide to Korea I had enough knowledge to get around the whole city. I had bought a copy of the “Seoul Insight Flexi Map” from Amazon as that appeared to be the best one available but frankly it was useless and of no real value to anybody, on foot, bike or car. Unlike Lonely Planet, Rough Guides don’t tend to include good local maps in their books.
It seemed that to get across the river into the main part of the city it was best to head for the nearest point on the Han River and follow the riverside bike track to one of the bridges. At that point I was still uncertain about how to use the roads so the riverside route seemed to make sense and lots of people mention it as a Good Thing. From the bus high up on one of the bridges I had seen a fair number of cyclists using the paths on both sides of the river. This picture shows the path running alongside a tributary of the Han, the main river is much wider.
The first problem was to get onto the path, I could see it below me down a steep bank but there are not many access points and I probably went half a mile in the wrong direction to reach a steep path down the bank. Once on the cycle track it was plain sailing, a wide tarmac track with a separate footpath and a good number of cyclists whizzing along. This was a classic “leisure” cycle route with large numbers of people dressed up in serious cycling clothing on all kinds of expensive bikes including full-suspension mountain bikes. Some wore face masks or scarves wrapped round their faces, padded suits to protect against falls, all kinds of expensive technical stuff to ride on a wide, level, smooth path with no traffic. Very strange.
The Han river is big, about the same width as the Mersey at Liverpool but there is no water traffic and no sense that there has ever been a waterfront so there is little to see apart from high-rise housing developments. Essentially, on either side of the river, you ride along with a freeway high up on one side and a great expanse of water on the other. The wide river allows free passage to stiff winds and there is nothing very interesting to look at. Because of the barrier formed by the freeway there are no easy or natural connections to the city districts alongside the river. It’s well set up with areas of park, toilets, cafes and bike hire depots, there are even some market stalls under some of the freeway overpasses selling cycling gear, but it’s all completely sterile and no fun.
Eventually I came to the Hannamdaegyo Bridge which was shown on the cycle route map and seems to be the one that points most directly at the city centre. The bridge was fed by a complicated cloverleaf of elevated roads and there was a matching elevated cycle path that curved up to join it. Once up on the bridge level I found a separate bike/footpath separated by a guardrail from the 12 lanes of traffic that pounded across the bridge (not a particularly big one by Seoul standards).
I cruised across the bridge and found myself on a marked cycle path alongside the main road, I didn’t want to go too far on this first outing so I turned off at the first junction and found myself in a quiet attractive road that led past the Sunchonhyang Hospital and up to the tourist district of Itaewon.
Having got my bearings and worked out some possible directions for a more ambitious ride later in the week, I turned round and headed back across the bridge but determined to find a more interesting route back. The path from the bridge threaded its way back to the proper roads and I found a quiet street heading inland away from the freeway. That connected me to one of the main roads parallel to the river which would bring me back to my start. The grid pattern makes it easy to work out your directions.
This road, Dosandaero, started out quite modestly but gradually grew to a full 6-lane boulevard. I found it easy to cruise with the traffic where the road was level or downhill but shift to the wide sidewalk for the uphills or any junctions that looked too daunting. This was much more interesting than the riverside with plenty of real life going on. I saw a few “normal” cyclists who seemed to be very relaxed and wearing ordinary clothes, unlike the overdressed enthusiasts on the riverside. I rode along for a while chatting with Son JeDok, a literature student, on his way to an exam.
So my first impressions were that Seoul is very big, the traffic is not as daunting as you might at first imagine, and if you want to cycle somewhere you can. When you need it there is usually some special provision for bikes but mostly you can mix and match between the roads and sidewalks.
And on those sidewalks you’ll meet some interesting people