Your first glimpse of traffic in Korea -- especially if it's in Seoul - is likely to make you an
immediate train and subway fan. At 7:30am you'd swear you were in Los Angeles; it's 4
lanes literally bumper to bumper. If it seems as if the entire city is on the road, that's not
just your imagination. A study in 2002 showed that the average vehicle density in Seoul
was a mind-numbing 13.1 per square km of roadway. Korea's national average is 0.92, and
the US national average is 0.65. |
On holidays, when Confucian traditions require Koreans to return to their ancestral homes, traffic is completely hopeless. The highways turn arteriosclerotic. Vehicles slow to a crawl, dragging a haze of smog and carbon monoxide along with the clot.
Even when traffic is moving, it seems like chaos. Motorscooter drivers putt-putt through the crowded marketplaces, usually at a walking pace, thank goodness, and park and ride on city sidewalks. At night, most drivers switch off their headlights when they stop at an intersection. Apparently, they actually think this saves gas. Sometimes they forget to turn them on again.
Cars drive right through red lights and make U-turns in the middle of the block. Believe it or not, these are actually legal moves. A red light is pretty much just a stop sign with a bit more authority. And U turns are not only allowed, they're required. Many intersections are posted "no left turn," so you have to drive down the block, make a U-turn, and come back to turn right. How this is safer than a left turn at an intersection with a light is beyond me, but there you have the logic of Korean traffic laws.
These may be legal, but speeding and drunk driving are not. You'd never know it. Korea keeps passing more and more draconian penalties for DUI, but it's hard to fight a tradition that says you'll never get ahead in business if you don't go out drinking with the boss after work.
Korean bus and taxi drivers are legendary. Although in our experience they're not as bad as they're sometimes made out to be, they can play rough at times. If another driver slows them down, they'll tailgate and lay on the horn. They'll take the smallest opening and the biggest risk to roar past the other guy and then cut in front of him. (Then, minutes later, they'll call out to him as if they were old friends.)
SUVs and vans have become hugely popular with Koreans, just since Margaret arrived in 2000. In the years since, we've watched Koreans try to figure out what to do with them when they're not driving them. They double-park and park on corners. Folks with small cars (and sometimes even big ones) angle-park in parallel spots (above).
South Korea's vehicle ownership rate is expected to nearly double in the next 20 years. Where will they put them all?