Alternative to Taxis at Night: Seoul’s Callbus

Seoul Callbus

Seoul struggles to offer a reliable taxi service at night. Too often taxi drivers refuse passengers or demand high flat-rate fares. A night van service with the name “Callbus” (콜버스) has been operating for a couple of months in Gangnam and soon it will be extended to other nightlife areas. It’s an efficient and cheap alternative to taxis and it can change how we know transit forever.


Callbus Service in Seoul

The Seoul Metropolitan Government introduced a night bus service in 2013 and night trains on line 7 just recently. Now a third service is added: The Callbus is closer to a taxi than to a bus regarding the spectrum of transport modes. It is a collective taxi van that carries passengers travelling in a similar direction to their individual destination. A smart navigation system guides the Callbus driver to pickup spots and calculates the best route regarding the various destinations of the passengers. In the transport sector the system is described as demand responsive transport but it’s very high-tech thanks to the smartphone app and algorithm-based route-guidance.

Seoul Night Callbus

The service Callbus can be accessed through a smartphone application. The app can be downloaded in the Google Playstore and iTunes. Operation hours are from 11 pm to 4 am. Each vehicle can transport up to 15 people.

A user selects in the app his current location and destination and how many people are with him before he sends out the call. Then the app tells him where he has to go to board the bus. Usually it’s a bus stop on a main road. The bus driver of the Callbus is already informed of the destination. The user just tells the driver his trip code to confirm that he’s the one who sent out the call. The driver follows the directions by the navigation system. The payment will be processed through the app. On the way to the destination the Callbus may pick up more passengers.

The graphic below shows a summary of the described process:

Seoul Night Callbus

The service was developed by the startup Callbuslab (콜버스랩). The first trial of the system was done in November 27 and the official launch was on December 1st last year. The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport (MOLIT) revised passenger transport laws to allow such a night van service with more than 11 passengers to operate and to receive fares. The government labels such service as Online-To-Offline (O2O). The service is still for free until the end of March. I couldn’t find clear information on the fare system but it is expected to cost half or a third of a taxi ride.


Expansion to Dongdaemun, Hongdae and Jongro

Seoul Night Callbus Interface

For now the Callbus only operates in Gangnam-gu and Socheo-gu as the picture on the left shows. The service will expand to other areas in mid-April. The Callbus is going to operate in Dongdaemun, Hongdae, Jongro and Gangnam/Socheo. Currently five vehicles are in use. The fleet is going to grow to 50 vehicles and in 2017 with expansions to all areas in Seoul there will be 300 Callbus vehicles.


Better than a taxi?

Two reporters from the Joongang-Ilbo tried to compare the Callbus and normal taxi on a Friday night in Gangnam. After sending out the call for the Callbus, the reporter had to wait 8 minutes to be picked up at his location. During the ride 2 other passengers got on the Callbus. The reporter arrived at 00:32 am at the destination. The reporter who tried to hail a taxi failed. She couldn’t get a taxi through KakaoTaxi for 50 minutes and so she used KakaoBlack (a premium taxi service). She arrived at the same destination at 1:17 am. Just comparing the driving time, the Callbus took 16 minutes and the taxi took 14 minutes but the KakaoBlack service was of course very expensive while the Callbus was still for free and even with a payment system it would be way cheaper than a premium taxi.

The system calculates the best route to serve all destinations. The algorithm is the backbone of the service and it has to be well-developed and without any flaws. The combination of night buses and the Callbus could be very powerful. It works like a trunk and feeder system, the night buses as trunks on main routes and the Callbus as a feeder. The Callbus can bring women and youngsters home safe at night. But probably with the expansion of the Callbus there will be less need to combine it with an owl bus. In the future the Callbuslab intends even to expand the service to other cities and we could see inter-city travel within the Seoul Capital Region.

Is it a preview of future public transport? A 100% demand-made, app-based transit system is possible but it requires a well-developed algorithm that can calculate the best routes for million of passengers in a very complex system. BBC Future’s Imagineering explains the potential of such a system. Bus stops are unnecessary in such a system. Fixed routes and bus lines are going to disappear. It would increase the efficiency because no bus would drive empty and detours are minimized.

I believe that it can even go beyond that. It can completely redefine the transport system. Combined with self-driving vehicle technology it would have a lot of potential. It can be a symbiosis of public and private transport. Road transit would transform from a rigid system to a dynamic mobility service. Transit users will be able to reach their destinations faster and more conveniently. Demand responsive transport can revolutionize mobility in cities.


Open Questions

There are still many open questions and challenges that the Callbus will face: News article mention a fare discount if many passengers are in a vehicle. How is it going to be calculated? Usually at night people don’t have to hurry to their destination but how does it guarantee a specific, reliable arrival time at the destination (like normal buses or subways do)? Especially with an increasing distance and increasing capacity of the vehicles the arrival time has a higher risk of delay. Does the algorithm and the whole system work under high capacity? If the demand is really high, how does it select passengers? Should it be included as public transport or let it operate under a private business model?




Source of Thumbnail: Callbus Facebook Page

About This Author

<p>Co-Author of Kojects. Interested in Sustainable Transportation, Urbanism and Korea.</p>


You can post comments in this post.

  • This is great, Nikola. Were you aware of this service when we had dinner before? This seems to bridge the gap between the fixed routes of public transit and the crowded road problem still present in automated personal vehicles.

    Philip Partington 2 years ago Reply

    • Hey Philip!

      Thanks for the comment. No, this service is new to me. I read about it a week ago. It can surely bridge the gap and change road transport.

      Nikola 2 years ago Reply

  • I think this is a great idea.

    I also find it interesting that the company is called “Callbus” and not “calltaxi”. It was mentioned that the ministry of land, infrastructure, and transport had to tweak a few laws to get it running….perhaps some laws that prevent the government from getting into the taxi-like business?

    Living in Germany for the past 6 years, it wasn’t until about 5 years ago that all inter-city bus travel was banned by the government in order to protect the mostly government runned train system.

    Douglas 2 years ago Reply

    • Hi Douglas,

      your point is very interesting. I think that you’re right. Naming it Callbus might be (“politically”) better than Calltaxi. Perhaps the long-term plans of the company are also more about shifting to demand-responsive bus service.

      This article in the Joongang Daily mentions a lot of the conflicts around this new service:

      Thank you very much for the comment!

      Nikola 2 years ago Reply

  • Interesting, too bad I didn’t know about this when I was staying in Gangnam area last month, it could really be a in pain in the middle of the night to find a way back hotel.

    Though innovative, I think it’s an inevitable consequence from the fact that Korean Government has been forbidding major international ridesharing companies like Uber to develop their business in Seoul like it’s doing in almost all other major cities all around the world. I mean, services like UberX/UberPOP/People’s Uber etc are all very efficient and affordable taxi-like services, but they cannot do this in South Korea, then weirdos like CallBus emerged…

    Wen 2 years ago Reply

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