Korea almost moved the capital from Seoul to a new, planned city in the middle of the country. The city I’m talking about is Sejong City which was opened officially on July 1st in 2012. This blog post shows my impressions from three visits to Sejong City. Each time I had the chance to explore the city for a couple of hours on foot and bus.
History of Sejong City
In 2003 former president Roh Moo-hyun promised to move the capital from Seoul to a new city in the heart of the country. His motivation was to minimize Seoul’s strong dominance and to promote regional development in other areas of Korea. Seoul was (and still is) overcrowded, expensive and dominant in the local economy. This led to a huge pressure on all functions and it caused bottlenecks.
There was a huge opposition to his plan and the Saenuri Party (it was called Grand National Party back then) blocked to change of the nation’s capital to a new location. Former president Roh modified the project and planned to move the majority of ministries and government institutes to the city which would become a special administrative city.
Lee Myung-bak, the president after Roh, tried to scrap the plans but he wasn’t successful. This article about the history of Sejong City summarizes the struggle until the official opening.
Location of Sejong City
The government put up a committee to select the best location for the new city. Three spots made it into the final round. All candidates are actually in close proximity to each other. The candidate Yeongi (연기) won.
It seemed that the location at the Geum River (금강), around 120km south of Seoul and less than 15km north of Daejeon, was perfect. The plans are to have a population of 500,000 by 2030. The urban area of the city is going to be 465 sq.km, which is 70% of Seoul’s urban area.
Here’s a map of the city:
The city is built along a circular main road. Green spaces are in the middle. The reason for such a form isn’t the topography, it’s more that the whole master plan follows a public transport-oriented development. Buses serve along the main road and circle around the whole city. Residential areas and offices are in very close proximity to bus stations.
Personally, I prefer a pedestrian-focused development or the so-called compact city concept. But still, a public transport-paradigm for the urban development is really nice. Sadly, as I will explain later, it doesn’t work quiet the way it should.
A Walk around Sejong City
I begun my first tour through Sejong City right in front of the main entry to the government complex. There I was greeted by this huge information board:
The map shows the government complex in the center of Sejong City. All government buildings are connected via bridges. I think that this is the longest green rooftop in the world.
The complex is a huge monster, spreading over several blocks.
The bridges spread over streets in a very nice style. Walking under the structure wasn’t uncomfortable at all.
Even wide lanes are no issue for the government building connections. Multiple level-bridges link the ministries with each other.
Here’s another view of a connection between two ministries. Yes, I was impressed by the pedestrian bridges.
The government complex doesn’t greet a visitor with open doors. Workers can use such an entry/exit. A fence runs around the whole complex and visitors have to use main entrances to get into the complex. I wasn’t inside, so I can’t tell you any details about how easy it’s to get inside or what documents are required.
There are direction signs to the ministries. The English version isn’t helpful because it just shows the abbreviations of the ministries. The name of each ministry is also written in big letters on the facade. Usually the ministries and their names change with every new government (every 5 years) and this also means that the facade/direction signs have to be changed as well.
It was really funny that the Ministry of Education has a kindergarten attached to its building. There are actually several kindergartens in the government complex.
The Heart of Sejong City
After examing the government complex for a while, I walked into the area that the government complex surrounds. There I found this:
Probably some of you might think that it’s the intercity bus terminal of Sejong. No, that’s wrong. It’s a parking lot for the shuttle buses operating between Sejong and other parts of Korea.
The shuttle bus plan from June 2015 showed that 133 buses were transporting government workers to Sejong City. A new plan was released in September 1, now there are 110 buses left. That’s still a huge amount of buses getting government workers to their work place.
If you click on the title beneath, then you can see how many buses operate between Gyeonggi-do or Seoul to Sejong.
Bus Operations between Sejong and Seoul/Gyeonggi-do
The buses are shuttle services from close-by train stations, Daejeon, Cheongju but the majority comes from Seoul and Gyeonggi-do. The funding for the shuttle buses is secured until the end of the year. There’s a possibility that the shuttle bus service is going to stop in 2016 and it will force more people to move to Sejong City (or worse: commute by car for over two hours per day). I believe that they will get again funding for buses because people will demand shuttles.
You can see the organization of the buses on this sign:
This is an information board that shows the organiztion of buses and their destination. Here buses to Suwon, Ansan, Suji, Bundang, Daejeon and various stations around Sejong city.
At first, I was surprised to see so many buses and it took me some time to understand the situation: The heart of Sejong City is a huge bus parking space. The buses keep the city alive by bringing in people that have to work in the city but don’t want to live there.
There are more buses there than at the bus terminal. And the pictures just showed one of a handful shuttle bus parking lots around the city.
Attractions of Sejong City
Then I walked to the Sejong National Library:
The design is fascinating and it was one of the few crowded places besides some shopping malls in Sejong City. Many people in their 20s were studying there, probably preparing for the civil service examination. That’s at least the vibe I got during my visit.
A highlight of Sejong City is the lake behind the national library.
Walking through the empty lake park I was accompanied by a Jazz version of R. Kelly’s “I believe I can fly” that was played by the large speakers.
There are also some areas to go out in the evening with a small selection of restaurants. One place that I visited consists of around 20 buildings along a narrow side-street.
Restaurants were about to open and everywhere was the sound of construction. With more inhabitants more stores and more restaurants will pop up.
Of course, this is a must-have in every modern Korean city: a stream.
The stream here is called Bangchuk Stream (방축천) and it’s running through the western part of town. The large pillars are supporting the government complex pedestrian connections.
On a hot summer day I didn’t see anyone in the park except some gardeners or trash collectors.
The best feature of the stream is the digital wall, displaying information like time and weather at night.
BRT System of Sejong City
Now, let’s get to the most interesting part: the public transport. This is also the biggest problem of Sejong City.
First of all, there is no train station in the city. You would expect a KTX between Sejong City and Seoul but because land owners worried about people commuting by train and not living in Sejong, every rail connection plan was heavily criticized. The nearest KTX station is Osong Station, around 15 km away from Sejong City.
This is the bus-only median lane in Sejong City. The median lane is elevated, so that buses can pass crossroads and to allow fast travel by skipping traffic lights. In September 2012 bimodal trams have been introduced but the vehicles broke down very often. The bimodal trams were even unable to get up the overpass during snow. The electric, high-modern bimodal trams have been replaced by diesel or CNG buses.
Here you can see the elevated bus lane from another perspective. Regarding infrastructure, anything that goes underground or is higher than street level is very expensive. Sejong City will later have a huge financial burden in maintaining the facilities. Seoul is currently removing all elevated structures, while Sejong City just built them.
In the eastern part of Sejong the plan is to have underground lanes and underground bus stations are planned.
In the title of this section I wrote Sejong BRT because actually there are almost facilities for a real BRT system:
If you have read my post about the evaluation of Seoul’s BRT, then you’re familiar with the definition of a real BRT system. But here again for new readers: A BRT (bus rapid transit) is a closed system like a metro system. Exclusive bus lanes are prerequisites and users pay BEFORE they get on the platform. Then when the bus arrives, users just get on the vehicle without tapping their card or paying for the ride.
The picture above shows that BRT-station-like facilities exist in Sejong City. But there are no gates at the entry of the platform and that’s why the facilities are useless and it isn’t a real system. If they spend billions by building underground and elevated bus-only lanes to save some seconds, then they should have implemented gate-ticketing outside the platform (and save another 5 seconds!).
Between the shuttle buses I made also the following discovery:
An OLEV electric bus! OLEV stands for “Online Electric Vehicle” and it was developed by KAIST. Media outlets reported that Sejong City bought an OLEV electric bus vehicle and it’s officially in use since June 22 of this year. Theoretically the OLEV bus could drive 40km after a 20-30min charge. But on my visits the bus was always standing there. It seems that Sejong City doesn’t have much luck with electric vehicles.
If the public transport system doesn’t work well, then citizens of Sejong City could at least cycle:
The urban area is flat, an important advantage for cycling. I can’t understand that Sejong City didn’t build separated bicycle lanes. Korean cities from the 1970s have better bicycle infrastructure than Sejong City. Like sadly common in many Korean cities cyclists have to share the sidewalk with pedestrians. There is a grey, flat surface for cyclists in Sejong. The bike lanes disappears at every intersection.
The transport corporation of Sejong still tries to figure out how to organize buses through the city. I saw a couple of temporal bus stops. Daum and Naver Maps show buses routes but there are no real-time bus information in the apps. The bus stations have bus information though.
Neither the bus system nor the public bicycle sharing system attracts many users. So, Sejong City has large areas reserved for parking:
A car is necessary to move around the city. Most of the parking lots are just temporary on undeveloped land but once citizens develop a habit, it’s difficult to change.
There’s one more aspect I want to look at: the residential area. Some areas are designated to detached housing but they are still undeveloped. The huge majority of housing is in the following form:
Apartments clearly dominate the city. This view shows the western area (around the government complex).
I could show you a million pictures of apartment complexes but they would sadly all be the same.
In order to host 500,000 people still many apartments seem to be needed.
Crossing the Geumgang to the East, it gets even more extreme regarding apartment constructions.
It seems that the city is developed in stages: At first, the western side including the government complex was built up, now the eastern side is in development. a research center complex, the KDI school and the new city hall is already completed on the eastern side. The next development will probably happen in the southern part of Sejong City and then the northern part is being built as the last stage.
Regarding housing I would have liked to see more alternative approaches. It didn’t have to be anything exotic or crazy. I just doubt that it is really necessary to build 20-story high towers around the whole city. At night many apartment buildings were dark.
After my visit to Sejong City I realized that there is something missing in all the new town-projects (Songdo, Pangyo, Gwangyo and in Sejong City as well): motels! There isn’t a single motel in any of these young cities. The reason is that motels are stigmatized in Korea with a bad, shady image. So apartment owners and city officials don’t want to have them in a city. But my personal opinion is that motels and some other features are part of a city because they are simply part of the society. They are important for a healthy, well-balanced urban environment.
The other problem with a lack of motels is that it equals a lack of accommodations for short-time visitors in Sejong City. The ministries are going to have many international events and foreign visitors will have to sleep somewhere close to the venues. Hotels will be constructed in the near future but until then, visitors have to sleep in Daejeon or some of the small towns around Sejong City.
The Portal to Escape
Because of high demand intercity buses stop at two places in Sejong City: at the government complex and at the bus terminal. I recommend to use the stop at the government complex because it is central and there are more buses passing this area. The portal at the government complex gets you out of the city:
Here you can get a bus ticket to Seoul or Gyeonggi-do from the bus stop at the government complex.
Compared to other cities (not only Korean cities), Sejong City has many positive features: It’s clean and green. It has a good land-use system. The density is moderate for international standards.
BUT the city is currently a disappointment in my personal opinion. If you have almost unlimited funds and build a whole city from scratch, then I expect something way better and more innovative than what we can see there. Maybe it is just a sad reality that the Korean dream consists of apartment blocks, free parking near the office, artificial streams and lake parks.
A general problem of Sejong City is that not all ministries moved. The national assembly and many important government bodies are still in Seoul. This leads to a lot of travel for higher officials between Sejong City and Seoul. It means that a lot of time and money is spent on buses and trains. The shuttle bus service shows that Sejong City can’t survive without Seoul. Sejong City is still a toddler learning to stand up on its own.
What can you expect from a city that “opened” three years ago? The “completion” is set for 2030. I hope that the public transport system will improve in the future and that more cultural facilities and attractions are built in Sejong City.