Lessons on Urban Governance that India can take from Seoul

When India is implementing its own Smart Cities Mission, lessons from Seoul are valuable and deserving of serious reflection and adaptation. Three key areas of urban development are particularly impressive and I strongly feel that lessons from Seoul can be adapted by Indian metropolises to improve basic services and quality of life.

Written by Apula Singh | Updated: August 10, 2017 5:52 pm
urban governance, urban city development, smart cities mission, india smart cities, Seoul urban governance,Bus Rapid Transit System, BRTS, waste management system, transport system, environment restoration Seoul’s BRTS and Passenger Information System at bus shelters

Study tours can facilitate comparative learning of governance models. I recently spent a fortnight in Seoul, studying about Seoul’s urban governance, the smart city initiatives and technological challenges of governing large urban systems. Seoul city, with a population of 10.2 million people living in an area of 605 sq. km and 24.5 million people across the Seoul Metropolitan area, is one of the largest and most densely populated city in the world. It hosts 20% of South Korea’s population. Seoul continuously strives for vibrant public spaces and quality urban services while promoting participative governance. The city has repeatedly topped the UN’s Municipal e-Governance survey and is widely recognised as a Smart City benchmark.

When India is implementing its own Smart Cities Mission, lessons from Seoul are valuable and deserving of serious reflection and adaptation. Three key areas of urban development are particularly impressive and I strongly feel that lessons from Seoul can be adapted by Indian metropolises to improve basic services and quality of life.

Firstly, the most impressive and transformational reform has been the bus reforms being rolled out since early 2000s. The dynamic steps taken by then Mayor Lee Myung-bak (who later went to become the President) set the stage for a city-wide urban regeneration and transformation. Two years of preparation involving collection of data, scientific analysis of travel patterns and a series of other studies were undertaken, followed by rationalisation of bus routes, introducing new trunk and feeder bus routes, and prioritising buses over private vehicles via a Bus Rapid Transit System (BRTS). The BRTS is an important design component of any successful bus reform initiative, and Seoul Metropolitan Government (SMG) could ensure that with a ‘combination of policy reform, infrastructure and technology’. This combination was missing in Delhi’s BRTS plan, resulting in dismantling of the corridor. One failure should not deter the city to reinvest in the bus network. Many other cities are using this as an excuse to instead invest in a Mass Rapid Transit System (MRTS) or a metro network. However, policy makers, planners and political leadership need to realise that BRTS and MRTS are complementary and one cannot substitute the other. The citizens, on the other hand, need to internalise the spirit of this famous quote by Enrique Peñalosa, former Mayor of Bogota, Columbia – “an advanced city is not one where the poor use cars, but rather one where even the rich use public transport.”

Integration with different modes of transit by unified and standardized fare structure and ticketing system between routes as well as across modes is another important element of the reforms. I was highly impressed with the seamless connectivity provided by Seoul’s ‘T-money’ travel card that can be used in all the buses, the subway network, in taxis and even in convenience stores. Such a level of integration might seem impossible in Indian cities due to multiple stakeholders but SMG too overcame such hurdles by effective stakeholder management. For instance, a combined bus operations council with representatives from 68 bus companies was set up for managing the joint revenues and their distribution. Private firms have remained as operators, while the administration controls decisions related to routing, scheduling and pricing through TOPIS, the Seoul Transportation Operations and Information Service. The Mayor as well as the SMG were regularly monitoring this process and the role of political leadership in these reforms cannot be stressed enough. India’s smart cities too need dynamic and visionary leaders to take charge and deliver on a mission mode.

Seoul’s model of intelligent transport system (ITS) can be adapted by India’s smart cities as ITS finds mention in majority of proposals. Seoul’s Bus Management System (BMS) that uses ITS and GPS linked to the electronic fare system provides a model worth studying. This is crucial for monitoring the integrated modes in real time and providing adequate information to the passengers via mobile applications. The BMS also allows for rerouting of buses during peak hours, making up for any capacity shortfall. Thus, any city trying to institutionalise such a reform initiative should meet the above pre-conditions, manage a control room for maximum utilisation of its bus fleet and constructed infrastructure, and make the network easily accessible to the passengers.

Secondly, SMG’s plans for urban regeneration and environmental restoration have given public spaces back to the people. The vibrancy of street life and sense of safety has been cultivated by putting people, not vehicles at the centre of this reform agenda. The restoration of Cheonggyecheon stream, once covered by an overpass, in 2005 communicated the leadership’s resolve to make unconventional decisions for reviving public spaces, and gained international acclaim. The creation of a public open space at Gwanghwamun Square in 2009 and the recent inauguration of an expressway-turned-walkway called Seoullo 7017, have also sent the right message for citizen-centric urban planning.

urban governance, urban city development, smart cities mission, india smart cities, Seoul urban governance,Bus Rapid Transit System, BRTS, waste management system, transport system, environment restoration Restored Cheonggyecheon stream

Thirdly, the waste management system is praise-worthy. Although a lot of packaging material is used for all consumer items especially food, sincere efforts are made for institutionalisation of segregation and processing of waste. Citizens separate their waste into 6 different categories, each of which are collected and delivered to a specific treatment facility. The district governments sell separate bags for disposal of different categories of waste and different days are designated for collection of the separate waste streams. Non-degradable, non-recyclable waste is incinerated in 4 waste-recovery plants. One of them is actually situated on a landfill turned into a natural park. One thing that India can learn from is that the facility is extremely well maintained and is open to the public, for awareness generation about waste management. School children are brought here for field visits.

urban governance, urban city development, smart cities mission, india smart cities, Seoul urban governance,Bus Rapid Transit System, BRTS, waste management system, transport system, environment restoration Awareness section at Mapo Waste Recovery Facility, Seoul

These interventions are steps towards improving urban governance and are aided by providing avenues for public-participation. The 2030 Seoul Plan promoted a citizen-centric approach wherein 100 members of the citizen participatory panel provided input on defining the mission, vision, and role of the Seoul metropolitan government. A representative governance platform, called ‘the Listening Policy Debate’ has been set up by the current Mayor, Park Won Soon. The Listening Policy Debate is a new type of planning process designed to listen to citizens’ opinions and reflect them in real policies.

While India has taken a step towards increasing citizen participation by seeking inputs for smart city proposals, there is a need for systemic governance reforms. Planning perspective and political will that places citizens and environment at the centre of any urban reform is need-of-the-hour.

Mayors of most Indian cities are neither directly elected nor serve a 5-year tenure. Even when they do, they are not empowered enough to make radical policy decisions. Mayor needs to become a coveted and accountable position such that whoever holds the office aspires to leave a legacy. In Delhi, mayors are effectively powerless and the Chief Minister actually tore down the BRTS. Delhi being a Union Territory, is governed both by the Union and the quasi-state government and both governments have a stake in transport system. In such an ecosystem, the role of political leadership is paramount. Financial devolution must follow to ensure success of visionary ideas and only when we, as a country, strive to implement people-centric urban policies, will we truly be able to call our cities ‘smart’.

The views expressed by the author are personal. The author visited Seoul as a participant of IGLUS (Innovative Governance of Large Urban Systems) program of École Polytechnique Fédérale De Lausanne (EPFL), Switzerland. Apula Singh is an Associate (Urban Governance) at Vision India Foundation and is currently working on a project with Central Government’s Department of Administrative Reforms & Public Grievances (DAR&PG) on replication / scale-up of e-governance initiatives. She tweets @singhapula
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