Just to make sure I queried Korean and foreign friends who drive Seoul's congested streets. They concurred. I even went as far afield as Euijungbu to enquire of an Englishman who commutes to his university in Seoul. He concurred, too.
Any doubts I may have had about the worsening traffic congestion were dashed on the day I got into a taxi at the Hyatt Hotel, thinking that forty-five minutes was plenty of time for me to get back to Dongguk University (DU) to teach an afternoon class. Well, as the taxi approached a traffic circle I shrieked, because traffic was at a standstill and backed up all the way from DU Station, past the Tower Hotel, and down to the circle. And I had a class to teach!
There was no time to vacillate. So I diverted the taxi toward Geumho Tunnel; but it, too, was clogged with traffic. Then I saw the Beotigogae Station entrance (a station I'd never used before) and got out of the taxi. Of course, Seoul's splendid subway system got me back to DU with time to spare, though I doubt that I'll be making lunch trips to the Hyatt anymore, trips that used to take about five minutes by taxi.
What did they do while I was away?
Seoul's heightened traffic woes are the direct result of a general amnesty granted by the government to all drivers whose licenses were either suspended or revoked, in most cases due to D. U. I. (Driving Under the Influence of Alcohol). This means two things: 1) The current ruling party will do almost anything to curry favor with voters during this election year, and 2) that all the drunks are driving again. The former is a brilliant election-year ploy. Even a non-voting cynic like myself would consider voting for the politician responsible for me getting back my driver's license after I had lost it for D. U. I. Or as Kojack used to say, "Who loves ya, baby?"
During the days of the "Miracle on the Han," Koreans were justifiably proud of a steadily rising GNP, of new membership in elite economic clubs, and of their students' outstanding scores on international exams. One high ranking, however, was a national embarrassment -- traffic fatalities, often the result of D. U. I. Korea also was recognized as one of the most dangerous countries in the world to drive in.
Something had to be done. So the police began a vigorous campaign to get drunk drivers off the roads by setting up late-night check points at strategic locations around Seoul, where drivers were subjected to a sobriety test. Anyone who failed faced the consequences: suspension or loss of his/her driver's license and a hefty fine. This campaign not only removed dangerous drivers but, unwittingly, reduced traffic congestion. Unfortunately, a most successful effort to end Seoul's notorious D. U. I. problem was sideswiped by election year opportunism. I'm shocked.
Traffic jams became a fact of living in Seoul after the taxi companies' monopoly was broken when the government permitted private ownership of taxis in November of 1980. Thousands of new taxis were on the streets in no time. There was speculation that this new ownership decree was not the result of government largesse (ending a monopoly) but, rather, the result of the government acting at the behest of Hyundai, which deemed that the streets of Seoul really needed thousands of more Pony taxis.
Until that November, one could zip -- yes, zip -- around town to the rhythm of a Pony taximeter clicking ten won every 100 meters, giving Seoul a sort of permanent background static.
The Pony was to Hyundai what the Beetle was to Volkswagen, and is today about as rare as a black and white TV set. Nothing has ever excited Korean consumers like the arrival of color television, which replaced the black and white TV set in every Seoul household in a matter of weeks. Everyone just had to have color.
Another dubious distinction that made Seoul an unpleasant city to live in was air pollution caused by the low fuel emission standards, if any, set for Korean vehicles. There were times when I felt that my very health was endangered as I stood at certain locales in Seoul waiting forlornly for a rush-hour taxi. I recall standing with a friend at the Gwanghwamun intersection during one oppressive August rush hour when he looked at me and quipped, "Ya know we're standing at one of the most polluted intersections in the world."
That, of course, was then. Almost all of those buses and trucks that used to belch black exhaust were consigned to the junkyard, while Korean car manufacturers had no choice but to adhere to America's strict fuel emission standards. When I do see the occasional relic spewing noxious exhaust on the street, it reminds me of how much things have really improved. No proper Korean belle, for example, would ever wear a white cotton blouse a second time without first washing it, back in the good old polluted days.
One fixture of those days that I truly don't miss is, the exploited girls who used to collect fares at the rear door of buses. It disturbed me at night to see them asleep on their feet near the end of a shift, a shift that had started before the morning rush hour. They were the most visibly exploited workers in Seoul. Kept in barracks, these girls were often subjected to the gross indignity of body searches in case they were hiding a few coins from their masters. The newspapers reported that after one such indignity they rose up against their overseers, demanding an end to such treatment. Thankfully, new equipment put an end to that miserable job.
As much as I like Seoul, its congested, frenetic streets do not inspire long, aimless walks, de rigueur for a city to inspire poetry. Yet I do remember when many of Seoul's main streets were just about empty of cars on Sundays in the early 1980s, inspiring aimless walks along Sejongno that, compared to the rest of the week, made me feel like I was in a ghost town. That was because all those rich guys in their chauffeured black sedans were out golfing. After all, it was just the chauffeurs and taxi drivers behind steering wheels back then. And all those black sedans made me think that Korea's car manufacturers were closely following Henry Ford's alleged dictum, to wit: "You can have any color you want as long as it's black."
One indication that the quality of life has improved in Seoul is that women ESL teachers from North America tend to stay longer now, a lot longer, than in the '80s, when Seoul had a funkiness about it that was hardly appealing to them. But Seoul's development and make-over of the past twenty years has robbed the streets of much of this funkiness and poetry, replacing them with glitz and glitter and a spectrum of coupes for Everyman.
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