A Few Notes on Public Transportation in Seoul and Singapore

(Updated, 2/7/17: new signs and maps in BART stations have numbered exits)

It’s always interesting to ride public transportation systems in other countries. Riding the bus or subway in another land can be inspiring as I see good ideas (as an engineer, good ideas have an intrinsic value of their own), and also bring a little despair as I think about the generally lousy implementation of public transit in the United States.

Seoul, South Korea has a truly amazing subway system, with ten lines that contain scores of stations (take a look at this map of the system to see what I mean, or visit the SeoulMetro Traffic Center interactive map to plan a trip). With so many stations, they have given each one a number, and then show that number prominently on signs in the station. The photo below shows a sign at Gyeongbokgung, station number 327. On one side is station 328 (Anguk) and on the other is station 326 (Dongnimmun).

An even better idea — one that I’ve also seen in Singapore and Tokyo (update 2/7/17: and on the BART system in the San Francisco area) — is numbered exits from the subway station. The photo below shows a local map for the Hoehyeon Station, with seven exits marked. After getting off the train, you look at the map, find where you’re trying to go (the tourist information center, for example), figure out which exit you need (number 5 looks like a good choice), then follow the signs in the station that point to exit number 5.

Guidebooks and advertisements also know the value of numbered exits. In several of the guidebooks that I consulted the authors would specify which exit would take you to this palace or that shopping mall (e.g., to get to Seoul City Hall, take Line 4 to the City Hall stop, use exit number 3).

Numbered exits would be of great value to riders of my local subway systems, BART and Muni Metro. Instead of leaving their riders to figure out whether the Asian Art Museum is closest to the Grove Street exit, the 9th and Market exit, or the UN Plaza exit, BART could simply number the exits and create a map like the one shown above.  Simple, inexpensive, and helpful.   (Update 2/7/17: new signs on the BART system include numbered exits.  However, I have only seen signs and maps at the fare-gate level. Signs and maps at the platform level would also be helpful, as some stations have multiple ways to the fare-gate level.)

In Singapore I frequently rode the bus, and came to appreciate the signs at the stops. The photo below shows a clever way of describing a bus route. To the left of the red line they have placed the road that the bus travels on, and to the right they list a landmark. So if you know you want to go to Depot Rd., for example, you can scan the list of buses and see which ones have that in the description.  Of course, a map would do the same thing, but when there are a lot of buses with overlapping routes (as there are in Singapore), the map can become too chaotic to be comprehensible.

 Photo of Singapore bus stop sign
The next photo is of rather poor quality because of glare, but I hope you get the idea anyway.  It lists the roads covered by the buses that stop at that location and which buses serve the roads.  Amber Rd, for example, is served by bus 196.  Buona Vista Flyover is served by bus 95.

Singapore also has electronic cards that can be used on buses or the subway, so that you can simply swipe when boarding and exiting, without needing to worry about having exact change. The Bay Area has a card that currently works on many systems (Clipper).

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