Bike Sharing in South Korea

One of the biggest trends in sustainable urban transport is called bike sharing. Bike sharing’s success began in France and it took over a lot of cities worldwide. After a general definition of that concept and some advantages, I introduce the situation of bike sharing in Korea. A simple definition of bike sharing systems is given by Alberto Castro:

Bicycle rental system which allows (without additional charge) to take a bicycle in one point and to return it in a different one, where the bicycle can be rented by another user.

It’s important to distinguish between bike sharing system and bike rental service: The last type implies the kind of service, where you can rent a bike for a specific time and you usually have to bring it back to the exact same place. Such a service is common for tourist areas. On the other hand, we have the bike sharing systems with multiple stations in a certain area. The intention of a bike sharing system is that it enhances the mobility without having the burden of using your own bike and the possibility, to return it to another place than where you’ve picked the bike up.
What are the advantages of bicycle sharing systems? Obviously, it is very convenient and almost always available. Instead of buying a bicycle, you can just rent one for a reasonable price. This enhances mobility of low-income house-holds and other groups. In a very interesting research there are a number of important advantages summarized:

A bikesharing program has several advantages as a sustainable transportation mode such as the promotion of public transport through multi-modality, the reduction of automobile dependency, and the contribution to healthy life-styles.

These advantages are why most of the urban planners try to apply the bike sharing concept to parts of the city or sometimes even to the whole city. Each system differs from country to country, so the next part looks at the situation in Korea.
Biking in South Korea
Compared to Europe and Japan, Korea began to promote cycling late. Therefore, the percentage of bike ridership is very low with 1.2% of all trips made (in 2005). The first measures to promote bicycling was in 1995, followed by the first national plan in 1998 and a second national plan in 2002. Since 2006, cities acknowledged that there is a need for bike infrastructure and facilities. The government invests heavily in the development of bike sharing programs. In 2007, the Korea Times reported that Seoul oringally planed to establish a bike sharing program similar to the Velib bike sharing system in Paris. The priority was to encourage citizens and tourists to use bikes instead of cars. At that time, the ambitious plan was to set up 200 stations in Songpa-Gu (the area of Jamsil Station), but as I will show later, this wasn’t realized. Instead other areas benefited of the concept. Since these measures in combination with an active promotion of cycling, there is a rise in the usage of bicycles but the number of fatalities with vehicles and bikes grew, too. In comparison to European countries, the number of fatalities is five times higher (compared to Netherlands even 15 times higher).
Bike Sharing Systems in Changwon, Daejon and Goyang
goyang2So in the next step, let’s take a look at the current situation of bike sharing in Korea. You can find an overview of the bicycle sharing systems on page 11 in the presentation “Is Bike Sharing Sustainable?” by Hee-Cheol Shin and a more detailed overview in Korean in the Transport Journal (교통연구) on page 82. As for Feb 2012, Korea has bike sharing systems in 14 cities and a total of 9,373 bikes at 493 stations. Probably, you would expect that Seoul has the largest system, but while Seoul has only 440 bikes, Changwon and Goyang have 4,630 and 3000, respectively.
Changwon was the first city in Korea and I’ve only heard good things about it. The system there is called Nabiju and as I said before, it has the largest number of bikes. Changwon’s Nabiju is a very affordable service and it improved the mobility of large proportion of the population. It even enhances the usage of public transport because it connects neighborhoods with bus stations. Each bike is used for 4.9 trips per day in average.
Personally, I used the bike sharing system in Daejeon and I saw the system in Goyang. Using a bike in Daejeon was without any charge for the first hour and I just needed my mobile phone number and ID number. Daejeon is very flat and the sidewalk is divided into a section for bikes and one for pedestrians. One hour is enough to get from the city center to KAIST and to the Expo area. I couldn’t see a lot of station along the way, so I put it back at the same place.
In 2011, I stayed for a few weeks in Goyang and every day I saw a lot people using the bike service. Goyang is a good example for a successful inner-city bike sharing system. It’s not only about providing a good-working service, the infrastructure has to exist. Almost every sidewalk in Goyang has a bike lanes (separated through a different surface/color). At every subway station, important bus station and places with a high frequency of visitors there is a bike sharing station. Totally, there are 125 bike stations! The picture on the left shows a station in Goyang.
Seoul’s Bike Sharing System
yeouidoThe situation is far more complicated in Seoul: There are, as far as I know, only three areas with such a service: Yeouido, Sangam-Dong and Seocho-Gu. The bike sharing program in Seocho-Gu is managed  by the district itself and not by Seoul. They installed nine stations around the area Yangjae (양재), which is on the southern end of Seoul. Currently, there are around 60 bikes available. On the right, you can see the red-colored bikes of Yeouido.
Another system I came across was at Sangamdong, where the Soccer World Cup Stadium and the Sky Park (하늘공원) is located.
sangamdong1On the information table, there was written that the service is for free and for teenagers under 20 years it is even for three hours for free. After two hours it costs only 1,000 KRW and the maximum time of usage is three hours. That means that teenagers can use this systems completely for free and everyone else doesn’t pay more than 1,000 KRW for the usage of this bikes. It is fully automated and the rental fee is paid over the mobile phone (not necessarily a smartphone). On the homepage of the Bike sharing service of Seoul, it’s possible to get a one year usage ticket for unbelievable 30,000 KRW.
Seoul’s big problem is that it is still very unfriendly to inner-city biking. At first, the city should work on that and then a well-functioning system for bike sharing can be introduced. This means that Seoul has to build a bike network with a lot of safety measures to avoid accidents with pedestrians and vehicles. The topography is a problem in Seoul because it isn’t really flat and on top of that bicycling up and down a hill isn’t easy when it’s cold in the winter or very hot and humid in the summer. It could also result in the scenario that people are going to use the bikes to go down-hill (for example from Namsan Tower to Myeongdong). Such a scenario means that the station at Namsan has to be refilled with bikes multiple times per day (which costs a lot of fossil energy).  However, in a more flexible fare system, the user can be awarded with discounts if he puts his bike in a rather empty station or has to pay more, if he adds a bike to a station with a small number of empty spots. Information about the price differences can be submitted through a smartphone-app. That would be a solution for Seoul’s problem with topography. Riding a bike to work is good for the health. and sustainable urban development. I hope to see soon a development into the right direction. Here are two pictures of the bike sharing station in Sangam-Dong:
sangamdong2
sangamdong4
Conclusion
Korea build a large bike network along the river Han in Seoul and there are a lot of more infrastructure going to be build along rivers, coasts and cities throughout Korea. Bike sharing systems enhance inner-city cycling and the usage of public transport. Besides, they are good for the health and the living quality of urban areas.
Sources and Links: Bike Sharing: A Global Trend | Wikipedia | Alberto Castro | Korea Bicycle Transportation | KOTI | Korea Times | BikeSeoul

About Nikola
Grad Student of Geography at Seoul National University, interested in transport and urban planning.

5 Responses to Bike Sharing in South Korea

  1. Elizabeth says:

    I live in Changwon and the bike rental system is AWESOME…it costs 20,000 won for an annual membership, and there are always bikes available at the stands. One minor correction: it’s called Nubija, not Nabiju. Great article, though! I’m glad to see other Korean cities are catching on.

    • Nikola says:

      Hey,

      I’m glad that you enjoyed this article. Changwon is indeed a role model for other Korean cities in terms of bike sharing. I would visit Changwon only out of the reason to check this system out! May I ask, what you think about the infrastructure? Do you like the bike paths?

  2. I think one option for Seoul to take advantage of the infrastructure it already built and as a first (relatively cheap) way to start promoting biking is to increase its bike sharing system in the rivers network, to turn it more into a mobility option rather than just a leisure attraction. The rivers can be “big lanes” for people to travel safety using bike as the infrastructure is there already, the land is flat and beautiful to bike, there´s even shadow in many parts (good for summer!), and even though it won´t be a door-to-door system it might bring some people out of the subway or buses if they have the time and happen to be close to a river.

  3. Pingback: Nubija, Changwon’s Bike-Sharing Service | Kojects

  4. Pingback: Changwon's Bike-Sharing Service Nubija | The Korea Blog

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