May 01, 2003

Seoul to Raze Elevated Highway, Giving Way to Revitalized City Center

Fulfilling a central campaign promise, Seoul Mayor Lee Mung-Bak is moving forward with the restoration of a downtown riverfront­ tearing down an elevated highway and building a Bus Rapid Transit corridor. In office for only two months, Mayor Lee has wasted little time in announcing a new vision for Seoul and taking steps to see it to fruition.

The cornerstone of this dramatic new vision is the restoration of the Cheonggyecheon, an 84-meter wide river running through central Seoul’s Dongdaemun district. Once the center of a diverse urban landscape, the river was gradually polluted with a toxic mix of chemicals including lead, methane, chromium and nitrogen monoxide.

Then, between 1958 and 1978, it was covered with concrete and the city built the Cheonggyechen elevated highway over it. The highway cuts through the center of Seoul and has long diminished the quality of life for residents of South Korea’s capital city.

Mayor Lee will take down the six-lane highway, decontaminate the Cheonggyecheon and create a park and wide pedestrian corridor on the shores of the river in its place. The destruction of the Cheongguecheon highway is part of Mr. Lee’s redevelopment strategy for the entire area north of the Han River, which he hopes will become Seoul’s economic, cultural and environmental center.

To accommodate the 120,000 cars that use the corridor daily, the city broke ground on its first formal Bus Rapid Transit line on March 13, which will serve the route. Mayor Lee is aiming to complete the 14.5 km corridor by June to coincide with the freeway’s closing.

In addition to the Cheonggyecheon busway, Seoul announced it will conduct bus improvement initiatives in 18 corridors­ nine of which will involve exclusive busways.

During his two months as mayor, Mr. Lee has already conducted fact-finding trips to investigate the Bus Rapid Transit systems of Curitiba, Sao Paulo and Los Angeles. The city sees BRT as a complement to its existing underground metro system, which would be too costly and too time consuming to extend at this time. Instead, the BRT system will be integrated into the metro structure and provide a quick way of adding capacity as the city is transformed.

The planning for the new urban form of Seoul is being spearheaded by the Seoul Development Institute (SDI), a research group funded by the municipality. In March, the SDI hosted an international seminar on sustainable transport alternatives. The seminar was an opportunity for local officials to compare their plans to international experiences.

At the seminar, SDI Director Dr. Gyeng-Chul Kim outlined the city’s long-term transportation goals. Seoul is testing articulated buses and expects to replace all diesel buses with CNG models by 2006. The city also has lofty modal shift targets, including a 50% reduction in private vehicle use by 2005.

It is clear that the international community will soon have much to learn from Seoul. The transformation of the Chenggyecheon corridor and the development of a city-wide BRT system are sure to make Seoul the new sustainable transport leader in Asia.

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