This is a guest post by Philip Partington, a Canadian with American citizenship residing in Korea. Philip balanced his university career between creative writing and information technology, and is currently striving to add Korean language to that list.
In 2012, Philip moved to Seoul for the foreseeable future, the city’s transportation system being a major hook. He believes a place’s transit strongly influences the way it is experienced, so the more modes, the merrier.
About one week before the soft launch of Seoul’s new bike sharing program, Ddareunggi, the second most visible symbol of the system began to show up around Sinchon. As seen in Nikola’s earlier post, various streets around the area, as well as in Yeouido, were painted with bike symbols and supplemented with signs reminding cars of the right of way.
Shortly thereafter, the more iconic and pleasantly green accented bicycles themselves were installed into stations around the neighbourhood and waiting. And, on the morning of September 19, the trial run began, and I was among those watching the successful minority put the new bikes through their paces.
A few false starts later—lack of iPhone support, a then unsupported T-money card, a then unsupported credit card, and a somewhat jury-rigged temporary payment system—and I was able to make my first rental the following morning.
Before I could hop on the bike, I had already received a message. You receive an SMS upon successful rental, which gives details including the individual bike number, the name and ID number of the station, as well as the time by which you must return the bike. You can actually rent a total of four hours, but you’ll be paying an extra 1,000 won every 30 minutes after the first hour. This being the trial period, the rental was free. Service was also not available in languages other than Korean, although the website has since been translated into English, Chinese, and Japanese. I can’t confirm if the SMSes are also translated, but the station names at least are all given in English in addition to Korean.
In the day between the launch and when I was able to rent, I had gone through the website in detail and saw that all of your usage statistics are saved there, as well as on the app.
Information is available for each individual trip, as well as a grand total, to learn how long and how far you’ve travelled, as well as how much you’ve assisted your health as well as that of the environment. Here’s how that same information looks on the bike itself.
Aside from the bright green highlights, the Seoul bikes are easily distinguished by the screen mounted below the handlebars, which doubles as a card reader. The safety instructions note that you must not check this screen while riding, for safety purposes. However, when you’ve come to a safe resting place and you’d like to quickly check your calories burned or remaining time, the angle of the screen means you’ll most likely have to dismount first, particularly on a sunny day. This may be by design, but is nonetheless a small irritant.
Overall however the quality of the bicycle, from this non-biker’s perspective, was perfectly adequate for its job. Although the rate of submission has slowed somewhat, the official website’s feedback forum still sees nearly daily messages from citizens complaining about the short one hour rental window. The city is adamant that this timeframe is suitable for their use as personal commuting vehicles and that the system is not designed for joyriding.
That said, the system actually accommodates this scenario as well: So long as you dock your bike within 60 minutes, you can immediately borrow the very same bike, effectively resetting the clock. When you first rent a bike, you can choose a membership period between one day and one year, and even on the day pass you can rent to your heart’s content.
Something of a pleasure cruise is exactly what I had planned—a trip from Sinchon to Yeouido, the two test areas for the Seoul bike system back in September. This was to be as much an enjoyable cycle as an excuse to check that bikes could be rented and returned between different areas of the city. Unfortunately my schedule didn’t allow for me to test this case, but luckily the media reported on someone with better time management skills than me who had.
The Joongang Daily reported on an office worker who cycles from the Hongdae/Sinchon area to Yeouido in the morning over the Han River, saying the trip is faster and more enjoyable than fighting through traffic or subway crowds. As should be expected, all bike stations scattered throughout the city work in harmony. This is key as, during the trial period with only two neighbourhoods running services, the bicycles were not terribly useful, especially as a tool of commuting—the trip over the Han River being the obvious exception. While fun to ride, there aren’t many areas around Sinchon that aren’t reasonably quick to access by foot, and so my trips on the bicycles were almost entirely for fun, testing, and exercise, although the basket on the front carried my food shopping home once or twice. Since the official opening of Seoul Bike on October 15, the bikes have been in service in five distinct, fairly well connected districts.
The more important takeaway from the quoted news story, however, is the comment on infrastructure. As Nikola also pointed out around the time of the original announcement for Seoul Bike, more paint on the same roads doesn’t contribute a lot toward the safety, nor the convenience, of bike riders in a tightly woven city with aggressive drivers and its fair share of road violations. I at first felt a sense of great unease pedalling forth in the same lane alongside cars in a rush, and also suffered a minor accident on an overly narrow road. However, I gained more confidence as time went on, saw that more drivers than not are courteous to bikers, and familiarized myself with cycling rules and laws. I tried my hand once at the illegal but much more widely practiced method of riding on the sidewalk, and it was easy to see why that’s not an option. Still, the danger is easily felt, particularly around the handling of bus stops, as well as just about any interaction with a taxi.
Greasing the Wheel
Perhaps the best compliment I can pay Seoul Bike, even if it sounds like a copout, is that it’s here. The subway and bus services of Seoul meet a high standard and have a massive ridership. Yes, they are generally clean and reliable, and so are the bikes. But my favourite feature of those networks is that they are there when I need them, and they bring me to where I need to be without much effort or forethought. Seoul Bike is meant as an extension to these systems, which themselves work in tangent. Wherever I want to go, I scan a card, and cheaply and intuitively, I’m on my way. The trial period had plenty of hiccups; using the system now lets me appreciate the contrast. Those who sign up now will use the bikes as they use the rest of the transportation system today, never having to know how much work goes on behind the scenes, just that they’ve got a presentation to give, a performance to see, or a friend to meet. The transit is an afterthought because, as a tool, getting out of our way is what it does best.
Similarly, the downsides are memorable because they don’t number very high. The most persistent issue has been working with a postpaid transit card, on which I’m still working to resolve. These cards must be registered at a bike station rather than online, which is mainly a challenge for the lack of an iPhone app, though that is coming. My card is registered for use through some dedicated workaround, but as of now I’m unable to register the card for the milage system, which awards points for users who transfer between the bikes and mass transit. As the bike system hinges on its integration with the existing network, this is a small but important issue.
Another problem is the misuse of the bike stations. So far it’s been a fairly common sight to see private bicycles tied up to the docks (look closely in the first picture) and motorcycles blocking access, in some cases even in the docks themselves. The bikes skirt one issue with other bike sharing systems where a full station means the user can’t return their bike, and this clever solution is accomplished by allowing the user to lock their bike into the last bike in the row. The only time I saw this feature in use was where two bikes were wedged between previously parked bikes and locked into them in a very inconvenient manner, and I have to guess this was more a practical joke than ignorance.
Is there a ready solution to these problems? Education and enforcement, of course, will help. Meanwhile, though the bikes themselves appear to be holding up well, the cable which slides out to lock them in place is not. Broken cables leading to unusable docks have been easy to spot, and they also spit out a lot of water after a rainy spell.
More than a Fresh Coat of Paint
It’s clear at this point that better infrastructure is required to ensure the future of Seoul Bike. The city’s bicycle related plans moving forward, and its characteristic ability to change and adapt at a rapid pace, suggest this is indeed only phase one, as the documents show. For as trying as it can be getting around on the bikes in the current environment, it’s better that the city’s inhabitants welcome the legitimate adoption of this mode of movement into the fold before persuading them to totally change the fabric. If you were to put it to a chicken–egg debate, while roomy and widespread bike lanes today would be welcome, the acceptance of and growing with the bikes is the next best option.
I’m not a biker, and their path generally does not overlap with mine in their current incarnation, but that isn’t stopping me from enjoying the simple freedom they offer, even for a few minutes a day, and the glimpse into the near future is promising. It took only the slightest exposure to this idea to understand why there is now so much force driving it.
From all I have seen and read, both within the Seoul community and regarding the world’s burgeoning bike sharing systems, I’m confident Seoul’s is on the right path. There are some pleasant surprises waiting at some of the stations, too, such as a large bay of bikes away from the road and nestled among the grass surrounding a sports field at Yonsei University. Spots like these can be difficult to find on the official Seoul Bike map, though, and for my part I’m adding each station to Foursquare as a token of appreciation for the system, as well as to give to users of that particular service a more accurate pinpoint.
Several riders have asked on Seoul Bike’s official forum for more stations located near or inside apartment complexes. I hope this will be the case, too; and indeed the team keeps up to date with responses on a daily basis. The iPhone app, for one, is also said to be on its way in short order. There have been so many fine changes in six short weeks too numerous to mention, and the development of Seoul’s bike sharing system is in some ways as fun as scanning my card and hopping on one of its bikes. There are five areas of the city served by bikes now, with more to come, all waiting to be explored a bit differently.