NO MORE noise pollution or traffic jams at Yonsei-ro, the 550m long road connecting Sinchon station and the main gate of Yonsei University. Most of the cars are now banned from the streets. Only a few buses pass by and pedestrians can now walk freely across the street without worrying about cars speeding through traffic signals. Yonsei-ro has been designated as a “transit mall” area, which has created a much more peaceful atmosphere than before and it seems, at least on the surface, that this system has settled in without any serious problems. Yet, is it safe to assume that all users of Yonsei-ro are satisfied with this new policy?
Things that have changed
To understand the recent changes regarding Yonsei-ro, we have to first look into the definition of a “transit mall.” According to the Naver dictionary, a transit mall is a street, or a set of streets, in a city or town where automobile traffic is completely prohibited or greatly restricted, while only public transportation, bicycles, and pedestrians are permitted. The purpose of designating areas as transit malls are to activate the commercial zones in the center of the region, create enough space for the pedestrians, and to improve the traffic environment. Now this transit mall system is widely put into action worldwide, in about 50 cities of 12 different countries, such as Zurich in Switzerland and, Lyon in France. Jungang-ro in Daegu was designated as the first transit mall in Korea, while Yonsei-ro became the first transit mall in the Seoul metropolitan area. According to YTN, Seoul City is now planning to designate nine additional transit malls, such as Rodeo Geori in Songpa-gu after considering the effects of Yonsei-ro, as a transit mall.
Then what exactly has changed in Sinchon through this relatively new system? Since Jan. 6, 2014, all private motor vehicles are not allowed to enter Yonsei-ro except bicycles, intra-city buses, and ambulances. Taxis, which are not counted as means of public transportation, are now only allowed to pass through the street from midnight to 4 a.m. During the weekend, even the buses detour, letting Yonsei-ro become a street with no cars at all. As an result of this change, Yonsei-ro which was once jammed up with an average of 30,000 pedestrians and 1,500 cars per day has recovered its composure. The pre-existing four-lane roads have now changed into a two-lane road, leaving room for spacious pedestrian passages to be built. The newly-built square in the middle of Yonsei-ro, which enables various kinds of cultural art performances, has also been catching the eyes of the public.
The pros and cons of the transit mall system
Besides the fact that enough room for sidewalks were guaranteed and the traffic environment has improved, however, the revival of campus culture is considered as one of the most remarkable merits of the transit mall system in Sinchon. With Yonsei-ro’s designation as a transit mall, Sinchon stated to show signs of going back to when it was a city representing the youth of the time. Thanks to the big square in the center of Yonsei-ro, the so called “Star Square,” crowds bunching together to watch street performances such as hip-hop dances, bands, orchestras, and acrobatics are no longer an unfamiliar sight. Furthermore, more and more people are gathering at the square to express their opinions, as Sinchon was promoted by Seoul city as one of the three biggest squares of Seoul, along with those of Gwanghua-moon and City Hall. Moon Seok-jin, the head of Seodaemun-gu, said that he was hoping to change Sinchon to a place like the “agoras” of ancient Greece, where people could freely discuss the current issues of the time. Indeed, there are a lot of people who are openly expressing their opinions in Sinchon on issues like mandatory military service for Korean men and the reunification of South and North Korea. Furthermore, as more people are visiting the transit mall area, it is expected that the sales revenue for the local market would rise. As a result, the transit mall can be a great opportunity to revitalize the ailing economy and to give a boost to local cultures. In the words of Bae Jin-young (Soph., Dept. of Chinese Language & Literature), “as a student who lives near Yonsei-ro and spends a lot time walking by the streets, I am sure that this would be an important turning point in Sinchon. Now, I am expecting the revival of campus culture, through this new transit mall system.”
With its designation as a transit mall area, Sinchon started to show signs as a cultural hub for the youth and was liberated from severe traffic jams and air pollutions. Unfortunately, however, while Yonsei-ro enjoys such benefits, the roads surrounding it are confronted with severe traffic congestions and illegal parking. Because automobile traffic drivers, including taxi drivers, are prohibited from driving through Yonsei-ro, their disaffection is at an all-time high. The growing complaints over detouring roads are expected, especially since Seoul city is planning to make Yonsei-ro a street with absolutely no cars. Traffic guides, who were originally exemplary taxi drivers, are currently volunteering to control the traffic flows of Yonsei-ro, preventing cars from entering the street illegally. However, since there are no practical measures to supervise the illegal circulation of cars after the traffic guides leave, it is now estimated that over 300 automobiles indiscriminately pass through Yonsei-ro after 8 p.m. In response, Seoul city announced that they will start imposing heavy fines on illegal drivers and begin to monitor the streets for 24 hours. Yet many people doubt whether these measures would eventually work. Jaywalking pedestrians are also pointed out as problem. Yoon Jae-chun (Traffic guide, Yonsei-ro) added that, “even after the cars disappear from Yonsei-ro, the safety of pedestrians is still at risk. Because of their false sense of security, pedestrians now recklessly jaywalk across the secret without using crosswalks. I come to witness an average of three to four minor accidents a day.” Moreover, regardless of their original purpose of raising local sales, transit malls turned out be counterproductive in some occasions. After Yonsei-ro was designated as a transit mall, monthly rental costs in local commercial zones have drastically risen, accelerating the market entry of big franchise enterprises in the area, while smaller ones have a hard time keeping up with the high rental costs.
There is still possibility of improvement
Before designating Yonsei-ro as the first transit mall in Seoul, planning and preparation took a year and a half while the construction of Yonsei-ro progressed for four full months. Yet some people are arguing that the government put forward the constructions without having an adequate understanding of the system or at least without trying to predict its results. The sidewalks and driveways of Yonsei-ro, for example, are around the same height, making it terribly dangerous when vehicles swerve onto the sidewalk. The bus stops, which are made of wood, though eco-friendly, are also fragile, and some are already becoming distorted. If careful consideration was taken before the actual implementation of the system, these problems could have been avoided. Possible solutions for the currently existing problems can be setting up an underground parking lot and putting forth the use of alternative vehicles such as bicycles, like the transit mall of Strasbourg, France. Furthermore, improving the citizens’ awareness of the newly adopted system is necessary. People should avoid jaywalking across the street or illegally entering Yonsei-ro while driving. To satisfy the citizens’ expectations to make Yonsei-ro a cultural hub, Seoul city also encourages people to progress cultural performances every weekend. Anyone who applies to the Seodaemun-gu office in advance can grasp an opportunity to perform in front of the public. Efforts of civic groups to activate local cultures are also drawing the peoples’ attention. Sinchon Republic, for instance, is a civic group organization whose members pay taxes for themselves and use them to organize cultural events. Thus, in order to achieve the real purpose of reconstructing the Yonsei-ro, cooperation between the government and the citizens is essential.
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Of course, when a new system is instituted, it is impossible to satisfy everyone, at least in the beginning. There should, however, be more efforts to achieve the real goal of transit malls – to improve urban functions and the quality of the peoples’ lives. Perhaps, it is time to consider possible alternatives for maintaining the merits, while avoiding the drawbacks of the transit mall system, which is a newly introduced concept in Korea. Expectations are high for the transit mall system to bring about a meaningful change to our society.