The Korean Derby

Posted: June 18, 2011 in South Korea

When traveling from Incheon International Airport to USAG Yongsan in the heart of downtown Seoul, I learned one very apparent fact about South Korea:

Traffic is awful and borderline dangerous.

There are approximately 50 million people in South Korea, a country roughly the size and shape of Indiana, with almost 11.5 million of those living in Seoul alone (the same number of people in all of Ohio).  This means there are more than 44,000 people per square mile and the traffic infrastructure simply cannot meet the demands of the local population.  While South Korea is an industrialized nation and a top-15 world economy, the population has grown more rapidly than the roadways can handle and the mountainous terrain makes any sort of development that much more difficult.  Simply put, traveling on the roads in Seoul and surrounding cities is like playing a life-size version of the video game Frogger.

While I did not take this photograph, this is of Seoul and this is what traffic looks like a lot of the times.

Traffic laws and lights seem like mere suggestions and we were told in our safety briefing that local South Koreans tend to run yellow and red lights a little later in the cycle than Americans.  When crossing the street in America, you’re taught to look left, look right, look left again and then cross.  In South Korea you need to look left, look right, look left again, let the other guy inch his way out, and then follow him if it is safe.  This is simply a product of their culture.  The local people are of the mindset of getting where they need to go and getting their task accomplished as quickly and efficiently as possible.  This is why it may seem like people are bumping in to you or past you on the sidewalk or in the airport and it is why drivers won’t hesitate to cut you off or force their way in to a spot that may not be there.  Plus, missing an exit in South Korea may add an extra hour or more to your trip as it isn’t as simple as going to the next exit, getting off the exit ramp, and getting right back on the highway.

The need for efficient travel in a place where traffic congestion is a given means that mopeds and small motorcycles are quite popular, and not necessarily because those vehicles are better on fuel consumption.  When traffic is at a standstill, locals on small motorcycles will go around or through traffic and ride down the lane lines, the shoulder, and perhaps even the sidewalk if nobody is looking.  They’ll even do this when traffic is moving but not to the speed of their liking.  It is almost alarming to be traveling in stop-and-go traffic and see a guy on a scooter speed past in between the bus you’re on and another lane of traffic and since this is how some South Koreans conduct business, they will literally strap anything to the back of their moped if need be.  I wish I had a picture because when I say anything, I mean anything — such as full-size refrigerators on the back of a Vespa and the rider will still weave in and out of traffic with the precision of a neurosurgeon.  It really is incredible to witness.

Another aspect of South Korea that I quickly noticed is that cars drive on the right side of the road.  And by right I mean both the literal right side of the road and the right side of the road as in the correct side because the way things are done in America, for better or worse, is the correct way of doing things.  Suck it, terrorists.

There are many of these small details on the roadways and in the city — whether it is a car’s orientation on the road, traffic signs, et cetera — that appear to come from the American influence that has been so prevalent in this country for the past 60 years.  If a certain way of doing things just works, it was adopted for use over here.

And the good news is, many traffic signs or store marquees are in both Hongul and English, which is the way it should be everywhere in the world.

  1. Aaron says:

    Haha love the addition of G-dub.

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