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.