Posts Tagged 'Urbanism'

Velib-style Program Far Off in Seoul

jongno
SEOUL — A RACK FULL OF IDENTICAL silver bicycles caused me turn my head and pause a moment as I made hurried strides away from my office. With baskets hanging from the handlebars, they looked  utilitarian but not sturdy; the bikes’ clunky design gave off a shine of cheapness. Their frames were adorned with lettering praising the supposedly clean air of Seoul’s Jongno District, and they were locked with identical locks. Briefly considering  their proximity to the district office, I was led to an exciting conclusion — these must be public bikes!

Unfortunately, it was the wrong conclusion. I stopped by the Jongno office on Tuesday to ask about registration but ended up speaking with a man who told me the bikes were for use only by civil servants (who likely weren’t using them due to a cold snap). He lamented that a program styled after Paris’ Velib was a long way off in Seoul. While the government recently announced plans to expand the capital’s shoddy network of bike lanes (which are often used by pedestrians, roller-bladers and flippant men and women on scooters), getting together the funding to create such a program would be difficult, he said.

In sharp contrast, the provincial city of Changwon in Korea’s far south set up a thoroughly advanced bike-sharing program last year. Citizens can check out bicycles digitally, lock up at dozens of stations around town and feel safe knowing that any medical bills resulting from accidents will be at least partially covered by the municipal government. All of the bikes are also equipped with navigation systems that sit between the handlebars.

It’s great that small towns are cutting new pathways towards sustainability, but shouldn’t Seoul be leading the way? A big part of the problem is a jumbled mess of roads and merciless traffic, admitted the Jongno employee. Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon met with the head of National Geographic Channel Asia to sign an MoU on combating climate change earlier this week. But whether Oh will make any groundbreaking changes to foster a bike-friendly culture in the city remains to be seen. Certainly getting public workers to see the streets from the saddle is a step in the right direction.

In Seattle, of Bicycles and Tree Assassins

photo by miss nikichan

SEOUL — IT WAS A GOOD THING that my life fit neatly into two large neoprene tubs. The apartment left room for little more. When I unfolded my built-in “kitchen” table from the wall, it blocked the entry way. The place had only one sink (in the bathroom) and my stovetop fit inside a small closet. But the floors were hardwood, and the location was prime: 42nd & Brooklyn, two blocks from campus.

About three years ago this September, I was hauling my stuff into this tiny space, picking up the pieces of a life I’d left behind in Seattle and bringing back some of who I’d become in Korea (this would be after my second sojourn in the country), along with a newfound love from Beijing: cycling. My future wife and I had rented old, rattling bicycles from a hotel during our trip there, and spent a day cruising around the city’s famous hutong. We stopped near Qian Hai Lake to eat peaches we’d bought from a local vendor, passed by the Drum Tower and wound up at a nameless tea shop on the west side of the Forbidden City. I felt a sense of freedom and ease that I’d long abandoned for a stick-shift.

One of the first things I’d done when I returned to the States was resurrect my old GT mountain bike from its resting place in my parents’ basement. Some oil and new tires and, behold! — it spins again. Not long after I moved up into my apartment, I could be found humming along the Seattle pavement, rushing unhindered by traffic through the city’s concrete veins.

My favorite route was the Burke-Gilman trail; a 20-some-mile path running from Fremont, through the University District and out along Lake Washington towards the northeastern suburbs of Kenmore and Bothell. For a good chunk of the ride, the trail was shaded by lush trees, a good number of which were deciduous — notably so, as much of the Northwest is wrapped up in firs and evergreens. As summer gave way to fall, I remember rolling over the brown pulp of jilted leaves, defying the fog and seasonal drizzle.

One particularly brisk morning, the orange, angular light of dawn cut through the changing foliage, highlighting the burning colors of the trees. It was absolutely beautiful, so much so that I nearly lost track of where I was going. Despite my pace, I felt frozen for a moment, my thoughts strung up between the technicolor branches.

The memory makes this recent news all the more saddening: someone is killing trees along the Burke-Gilman. The Seattle P-I reports:

Quarter-inch holes spaced about an inch apart were drilled around the tree trunks. Three poplars and two Douglas firs are dead, and two firs are starting to turn brown. The leaves on the poplars turned black, Mead said, indicating a rapid death likely caused by an herbicide.

“They were pretty thorough,” he said of whomever damaged the trees. “It would indicate a professional” did the poisoning.

The deaths of the trees reportedly came after unidentified persons in the neighborhood requested the trees be taken down.

While it may be true that in the grand scheme of things the downing of a few trees is minuscule, what is ultimately more depressing is the attitude this act reflects; the viewing of nature as an obstruction, and a disrespect for public space. It is perhaps a similar mentality that drives urban sprawl, that great plowing of humanity out where the wilderness would be better left to its own devices, the compartmentalizing of land into blocks of private property.

Here in Seoul, as in Beijing, greenspace is a hot commodity — my wife and I stumbled across a patch of grass the other day and took a picture as proof that it actually grows here. Without the luxury of yards, Seoul’s residents enjoy what little nature the city affords by picnicking next to the river or up in the mountains, and savor the few breaths that smell of pine instead of smog. In contrast, it seems that even some among the famously eco-friendly Seattlelites have gotten spoiled; perhaps they ought to go out for a ride, and remember what makes the city what it is.


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