1. Transport
December 28, 2020updated 26 Jan 2021 4:00pm

Two mass transit systems, two very different 2020 outcomes: Seoul vs San Francisco

San Francisco has seen ridership fall 90%. In Seoul, passenger numbers have held up much better. To what extent can local policy choices prior to and during the pandemic explain the difference?

By Aisha Majid

A full subway train car in Seoul, and a nearly empty BART train car in San Francisco.

Comparing the 2020 public transport experiences in Seoul (left) and San Francisco is a study in contrasts. (Photos by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images (left) and Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Coronavirus has dealt a huge blow to mass transit.

In cities around the world, some buses and trains are running routes with just a handful of passengers, while service cuts mean that other routes, essential for front-line workers, are more crowded than ever.

The large reduction in passengers has caused transport agencies’ fare box revenues to plummet while significant operating costs – such as staff salaries, administrative fees and rents – remain, plunging operators that were already struggling into a dire financial situation.

While there’s hardly a city in the world where passenger numbers have not fallen, some have been hit worse than others. Among them is San Francisco, which has seen ridership fall 90%. In contrast, in Seoul, which has one of the best public transportation systems in the world, passenger numbers have held up much better.

To what extent can policy choices prior to and during the pandemic explain the difference in how San Francisco’s and Seoul’s transit systems have fared in 2020? And how much is down to how effective South Korea and the US have been more generally in stemming Covid-19 outbreaks in their countries?


According to experts, Seoul is one example of a city that managed early on to restore public faith in public transportation.

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Even during peak periods of virus transmission – such as in August, when the city was reporting over 100 new cases a day – Seoul did not see ridership declines on the level of other global cities.

At the lowest point for ridership, in March, the number of passenger trips was down by 30% from January figures and has not since dropped further. In August, ridership temporarily recovered to 91% of normal levels and as of November had returned to 84% of the pre-pandemic level.

According to Chang Yi, a transportation research fellow at the Seoul Institute, the government’s aggressive disinfection campaign and the fact that no virus cases have been linked to transit have helped reassure commuters that public transport is safe to use.

“Part of the reason is the programme that the metro and bus authorities are doing,” he says. “It’s not rocket science, but they spray disinfectant after every run on bus and subway vehicles. They clean everything. Transit stations are disinfected many times every day; a bus might be disinfected eight or nine times a day.”

As well as deep cleaning, key subway stations put in place thermal scanners, passenger levels in buses and trains are carefully managed, and there is a clear protocol for tracing the movements of any passenger who tests positive for Covid-19 so extra disinfection measures can be put in place.

While some studies have cast doubt on the effectiveness of heightened cleaning regimens, mask wearing has generally been proved to be effective in curbing the virus’s airborne transmission. While in the US there has been some resistance to wearing masks, Chang says commuters in Seoul have readily adopted face coverings.

“If you don’t wear a mask, you don’t get to board and you get a fine of $100, which is significant,” he says. “People listen. I’ve never seen anyone without a mask on a bus or subway. People know it works.”

While policies and widespread compliance with safety measures have played a role, it’s impossible to overlook the effect that South Korea’s ability to control its outbreak has had on transit ridership. Unlike the US and many countries in Europe, South Korea managed to limit case numbers without imposing harsh movement restrictions. Until the beginning of March, the country had the second-highest number of cases in the world. Swift action curbed those numbers, and Seoul’s current cumulative total of 175 cases per 100,000 people is much lower than in many comparable Western cities. This has no doubt been helped by a public that has accepted intrusions into personal privacy, such as scrutiny of smartphone data and credit card records, to help follow the virus’s path. By ceding those freedoms, they have avoided mass lockdowns and thereby retained more semblance of “normal life”.

While South Korea has been hit by successive waves of infections – including an especially worrying new rise – life in Seoul for much of the year has resembled normality much more closely than in other major cities. Buses and trains ferry large numbers of passengers, and many restaurants are full of customers at lunchtime.

A large proportion of the people boarding Seoul’s mass transit are workers, says Chang. Although remote working has increased in the city, it has been less prevalent than in other countries.

“Some people chose to work from home during the pandemic, but in Korea my sense is that we value face-to-face interaction,” he says. “We have to just meet people. Business and government folk, for instance, feel like they aren’t doing work without meeting people.”

And it’s not just how the government has managed the pandemic and transport services this year that has helped the city’s transit network weather the storm. For a long time, the city has made transit a priority service, and as a result it’s part of the city’s DNA.

“In comparison to US cities where transit is hell and cities in Southeast Asia where there is traffic hell, Seoul is a transit-oriented city,” says Chang. “Transit is one of the essential things we must have – it must work.”

Although car ownership in Seoul is relatively high and two-car households are not uncommon, new-car sales in the country have been slowing down. According to official figures, there were 457 passenger cars per 1,000 inhabitants in South Korea in 2019, a figure that had only slightly increased since 2017.

Private vehicles are “just not good enough”, says Chang. For the 60% of the population that depends on public transportation, it’s an essential service. Long-term prioritisation of the transit network has helped build a more resilient system that, although not immune to the effects of a crisis such as a Covid, is better positioned to withstand it.

None of this happened by accident. In 2004, the city instituted wide-reaching public transportation reform in response to falling demand and rapid growth in the use of private cars, which helped turn around the city’s then-ailing network.

Among the reforms was a complete reorganisation of the city’s bus services, tightening of public control over routes and schedules, and improved coordination between transit modes. All these measures have improved the usability and reach of the city’s transit options.

While Seoul’s transit network may have been well placed to weather Covid-19, the pandemic has also exposed potential weaknesses in how the city’s transport is managed.

Like many places, Seoul depends significantly on fare box revenue to fund transportation, which makes it vulnerable to declines in passenger numbers.

“If we had a significant drop like in New York, we’d be in trouble, no doubt.”

Prior to the pandemic, some 70% to 75% of the roughly $1bn annual operating budget for the city’s quasi-public bus network came from fares, with the gap plugged by public subsidies. Some 75% of the subway’s annual $2.6bn annual operating budget came from rider revenue.

Neither system has had to worry about the ridership declines seen this year, as the city government has been quick to make up shortfalls and even guarantee bus operators a profit in return for effective service. As Chang points out, that might have been different had ridership fallen as much as in other cities.

“If we had a significant drop like in New York, we’d be in trouble, no doubt,” he says. “Fortunately, it didn’t happen.”

One key weakness he points to is that fares have been capped too low by the government. Unlike somewhere like Tokyo, where a short hop in the metro costs around $3, in Seoul a single ride is just a third of that, which he says calls the financial sustainability of Seoul’s network in the longer term into question.

“Transit should be subsidised by the government, but the question is how much,” he says. “The best way to cover operation costs and the debt and make sure we have a sustainable system is to get a justifiable fare.”

San Francisco

In contrast to Seoul, there has been a precipitous drop in mass transit use in the San Francisco-Oakland urbanised area.

In April, when a stay-at-home order was in place across the metro area, the number of trips was just 14% of January’s level. And unlike cities that have seen rebounds in public transport use despite subsequent waves of Covid-19, ridership in San Francisco has remained low throughout the year. The latest figures from October showed that passenger trips were 25% of pre-pandemic levels.

Funding from the CARES Act in the spring helped sustain the city’s transit operators this year, but that money is soon set to run out. Transit agencies in the Bay Area are due to receive a further $1bn from a new relief package signed by President Donald Trump over the weekend. Still, agencies such as the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which has been considering laying off staff, say that longer-term revenue sources are needed to maintain service long-term.

A key challenge has been the decimation of fare box revenues. Although these vary significantly between operators, with fares making up as little as 10% to 15% of operating costs for bus systems in less dense areas, for some of the higher-ridership services, fare income is crucial. Roughly 80% of the operating cost of a journey on the Bay Area Rapid Transit (Bart) system is covered by the fare, while the fare offsets 70% of the operator cost of a trip on the Muni Metro. While there’s no silver bullet for funding transport systems, expert bodies such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s International Transport Forum are clear that combining funding from multiple sources increases resilience.

This year’s dramatic drop in passenger trips on San Francisco transit is of course immediately attributable to the levels of the virus in the area and the severity of the lockdown. The cumulative Covid caseload in the five counties that make up the urbanised area is 23 times higher than in Seoul. San Francisco has also faced some of the strictest lockdown measures in the US.

“So much of this right now, particularly in San Francisco, has to do with the protracted nature of our crisis versus some other places,” says Jonathon Kass, who heads transportation policy at the Bay Area urban policy think tank Spur. “There are some unique challenges with transit with how we manage this, but most of it at this point has to do with our inability to get things under control.”

Elizabeth Deakin, a professor emerita specialising in transportation at UC Berkeley, agrees. She says that much of the difference between how Seoul and San Francisco have fared has to do with government policy.

“South Korea has handled the pandemic much better than the US, and so the US has been felled by Covid-19 cases,” she says.

“If we had managed Covid better and obtained results like those in South Korea or New Zealand, we would still have issues about quality of service but far smaller losses in ridership.”

Many people in the Bay Area have not returned to their offices, which has affected commuter bus and rail and had a knock-on effect on transit in Downtown San Francisco, as food outlets and other businesses that usually serve office workers have been hit. Although in normal times transit ridership is relatively high within the city by US standards, it is still lower than many Asian or European cities, and the figure drops further in farther-flung parts of the metro area.

“You have a whole bunch of people who, even under normal circumstances, transit is not part of their life or universe in any way, shape or form,” says Kass. “So you have a mode that was a small fraction [now] far smaller.”

While business closures and remote working have had a bigger impact on reduced ridership, a feeling that transit is risky – partly reinforced by official messaging such as advice from the Centers for Disease Control in late spring advising commuters to drive in single-occupancy cars – also contributes to the worry, says Kass.

“A lot of people that have a choice [are] not feeling like transit is a safe option and therefore avoiding it,” he says.

He adds: “There’s just an overriding message that if you don’t have to be in a place where there are other people – that you’re not in a bubble with the nature of the pandemic, even more so now than a month ago – [you should] do everything possible to avoid that situation. In spite of some data and news that transit transmission is not a driving problem, people are following the overall guidance that they should minimise proximity to other people.”

The problems currently facing transit in San Francisco have been made worse by pre-existing challenges. Analysis of passenger data shows that ridership numbers in the San Francisco-Oakland urbanised area started declining in 2014, falling 5% between 2014 and 2019.

According to Deakin, one of the reasons for the decline in ridership is the propensity to turn to cars.

“Transit ridership had been declining well before the pandemic hit, due to a combination of low fuel prices, affordable vehicles (including used vehicles that last longer) and competition in city centres from Uber and Lyft,” she says.

A 2018 study by researchers at the University of Kentucky found that San Francisco would have to increase bus service by 25% to offset the effects of Uber and Lyft in depressing ridership. While their model showed that across US cities, bus ridership declines by an average of 1.7% when Uber and Lyft enter a city, the decline in San Francisco was much higher at 12.7%.

Another key issue facing transit in the wider urban area and region, although much less so within the city of San Francisco, is the fragmentation of transport. This makes navigating mass transit challenging for riders who have to cross counties and use multiple operators.

Difficulties such as timing connections between agencies and making sense of non-standardised route maps had already acted as a barrier to greater transit use.

“It’s been a huge problem outside of San Francisco, growing the share of people that use transit,” says Kass. “Fragmentation has been a huge constraint to developing a transit culture.”

Although longer-term issues in the system, such as deferred maintenance of infrastructure and poor coordination between operators, are not the primary reasons for drops in ridership during the pandemic period, they may make recovery harder for agencies struggling with basic questions such as how to keep services going for front-line workers.

“It’s in crises that these inefficiencies and poor coordination become more apparent,” Kass says. “It’s the very typical challenge of having a crisis and needing to make things work when it’s more desperate than ever but recognising that trying your best to return to the system that you had before the crisis is not that smart because it wasn’t working great.

“Like any crisis, it’s the worst time to suggest we look at those institutional changes and reformulate.”

Federal funding will be key to keep essential services going and prevent a long-term deterioration in the system, says Kass, who worries that if agencies are forced to lay off workers now, they will have to wait years to recoup the staff needed to return transit to capacity, given the particularly long hiring processes in the Bay Area.

“The idea of getting more subsidy to bridge until we’re through the crisis seems like a no-brainer as long as it doesn’t disrupt some creative thinking about how we can come back in a different and more effective structure,” he says.

Deakin is more guarded about the effectiveness of the federal bailout. “That will only be a temporary extension of the temporary rescue,” she says.

Both Deakin and Kass are hopeful, however, that transit – within San Francisco, at least – can recover.

“San Francisco must [weather this crisis],” says Kass. “I have more concerns of the possibility of permanent loss of transit service in some of the more dense communities outside of San Francisco.”

According to Deakin, measures now in place, such as rigorous cleaning, better ventilation, mask wearing and limiting the number of people per vehicle, can all help reassure passengers that transit is safe to use. A vaccine and the return of economic life to the city centre will, however, be the main catalyst for recovery, she says.

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