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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

The Colourful Buses of Seoul

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Transit systems always want to paint their buses in matching colours so that riders can spot them easily. But what if different bus colours could tell you roughly where they are going? Seoul, Korea has done just that.

By John Calimente, re:place magazine

It takes time to become familiar with a transit system, especially its bus routes. While rail has the advantage of being very legible – one can always see the directions that the rails are headed – buses are another matter. Transit systems try to help by providing route maps at stops, naming routes after their destinations or neighbourhoods they pass through, or through their route numbering system.

In Vancouver, for example, buses with triple-digit route numbers leaving downtown and beginning with 24 are headed for North Vancouver, 25 to West Vancouver, and 13 to Burnaby. Surrey routes start with the number 3 and Richmond routes start with 4. But that’s rather obscure, rather like learning the codes on Coca Cola cans that tell you where and when they were produced.

What bus systems really need is way to make their routing easily understandable even to those who have never ridden them before. I recently found out that Seoul, Korea has implemented a system that goes a long way towards solving the bus legibility problem.

In 2004 the Seoul Metropolitan Government completely overhauled their Ilban, or city bus system. Instead of replacing the buses themselves, though, they went with a different approach that consisted of 5 key changes:

1) Bus routes were simplified

2) Four bus categories were created, each with a different colour scheme (red, blue, yellow, and green);

3) Route numbers were changed so that they explained both the origin and destination of the route, based on a district numbering system;

4) A flat-fare system was implemented and integrated with the subway system;

5) Real-time communication systems were installed so that transit riders could check arrival times by cell phone.

The colouring scheme goes a long way towards helping riders know exactly where their bus is going. It’s very simple. Blue buses travel long distances on major arterial roads, serving more than 2 districts, and run in median bus lanes when they get close to the centre of the city (this video shows a blue bus entering a separated median lane). Green buses operate as feeder buses to the 8 lines on the subway system and are run by private companies. Red buses are express routes with limited stops connecting major suburban towns to the central city. And yellow buses are circular routes that travel between the major destinations in the central city. Blue and red buses are the same price, while the red (suburban) buses cost more and the local yellow buses less.

But the addition of a route numbering system that actually has explicit meaning is something every transit system should adopt. First they divided Seoul into 8 numbered zones, starting at 0 in the downtown core and giving the surrounding zones numbers 1 through 7.


Then they used these zones as part of the route numbers. Blue buses have three-digit route numbers. The first number indicates the origin zone and the second number the destination zone, with the last number the bus ID number. So if you encounter bus #048, for example, you know it travels from downtown (zone 0) to zone 4. Red buses put a 9 in front to indicate that these are suburban routes, while yellow buses have only two numbers, since they stay within the same zone.

Think of how useful this system is for those who don’t speak Korean – when you see the route number you instantly know where it is going if you know your zone number. No more worrying about which direction the bus is headed either (the fact that one can get on both a #17 UBC or Oak bus headed the same direction at the same stop must confuse a lot of first-time riders in Vancouver).

Seoul has made it even easier than that, since stops are announced not only in Korean, but also in English and sometimes in Japanese or Chinese, as well.

Another smart thing that Seoul has done is to put the major destinations on the side of each bus – see here. What a simple yet effective idea!

It also seems that the reforms have helped keep public transit mode share high in Seoul. Suburban routes had previously seen dwindling ridership and irregular headways, while central city routes were crowded and plagued by reckless driving. By developing a hierarchical system of trunk, feeder, intercity, and circular routes, Seoul made their buses easy for riders to use, while 183 km of dedicated median busways improved on-time performance. Even in the face of a 7% increase in mode share for the automobile between 2000 and 2006, mode share for bus and subway held steady at 28% and 35% respectively.

The average daily number of bus passengers on the system has increased from 4.9 million in 2003 to 5.6 million as of 2009. Significantly, the total subsidy for bus and subway operations has dropped by US $421 million over this period due to increased ridership and system efficiency.

I applaud the efforts of the Seoul Metropolitan Government to make its system easy to use, even for the novice rider or the foreign visitor. Transit systems in North America would do well to learn from their work.


For those who would like to hear more, Dr. Kee Yeon Hwang, the president of the Korea Transport Institute, will be speaking at SFU Surrey on March 31 at 6:30pm. The title of his talk is “The Sustainability Dividend of Building a Better Bus System: Evidence from Seoul’s Public Transit Reform”. You can register for free here.


John Calimente is the president of Rail Integrated Developments. He supports great mass transit, cycling, walking, transit integrated developments, and non-automobile urban life. Click here to follow TheTransitFan on Twitter.