South Korea Uses Web Technology to Boost Public Transit Use

An IT pilot in Seoul, South Korea signals a new role for government and green IT.

by / October 21, 2008

Finding green IT projects in U.S. government or abroad that reach beyond rote "environmentally friendly" talking points is difficult. More often, green IT initiatives focus on reducing hardware's electricity consumption to cut costs -- and being green is a secondary goal.

A prime example is data center consolidation, which currently is the largest green agenda item for state and local IT departments. Consolidation modernizes equipment, saves money and slashes energy usage. The latter outcome just so happens to reduce government's carbon footprint -- the measure of human-caused carbon emissions, which most scientists say is a contributor to climate change. But it begs the question: Does government IT have a green role to play beyond energy-efficient hardware?

We may find out in roughly nine months. That's when Seoul, South Korea, should be able to report conclusively on the progress and success of its Smart Transportation Program, said Simon Willis, senior director of the Global Public Sector Internet Business Solutions Group for Cisco Systems Inc. (No English-speaking city representatives from Seoul were available to be interviewed for this story.) The transportation program aims to increase public transit ridership with flexible, distance-based fares and Web-based technology for determining public transit routes from any city location.

Seoul is one of seven cities enlisted in Connected Urban Development (CUD), a partnership with Cisco that commits those cities to creating IT projects that cut carbon emissions by reducing traffic congestion. The six other cities are Amsterdam, Netherlands; Birmingham, England; Madrid, Spain; Hamburg, Germany; Lisbon, Portugal; and San Francisco. Many of the cities plan to use IT to make public transportation more attractive to citizens, and Seoul's project is the furthest along, Willis said. American metropolises tangled by traffic difficulties would be wise to keep an eye on Seoul's progress.

The project is moving from the planning stage to execution, according to Cisco. "It's pretty early in the project," Willis said. "This is cutting-edge stuff."

Convenient Public Transit
If you work in a big city and don't use public transportation, there's a good chance that's because it's a hassle to use. Seoul wants to make its system more accommodating.

The city will create a platform of Web-delivered software, in conjunction with several vendors, which will combine information from the city's various transportation fleets and the Korean National Railroad. The platform will offer real-time traffic information and determine a user's most efficient public transit route based on wherever he or she happens to be located in the city. The platform will combine different modes of public transportation, such as trains and buses, and it will analyze traffic on each route and the available parking. The user will be able access the system from an iPhone, BlackBerry or wireless Internet connected laptop.

Seoul's project targets everyday drivers as well as public transit commuters. For example, imagine a driver is stuck in a traffic jam on his route to work. That driver could access Seoul's Web-based traffic platform from a smartphone and quickly learn that a nearby train or bus routed toward his destination was picking up passengers near the traffic jam, Willis said. The system could also report whether the corresponding train or bus station had available free parking.

Willis said the next version of Seoul's traffic platform also might enable citizens to remotely book seats on trains and buses. In addition, users will be able to access the system while riding public transit to find out the expected wait times at connecting bus or train stations.

Seoul officials expect riders to value these new features because it would empower them to more accurately organize their days around public-transit schedules. But not all users will have laptops or smart phones handy, so the city is considering installing devices for accessing the system at bus stops

and train stations.

The travel data necessary for Seoul's unified platform sits in agency silos, as it does in many U.S. cities. IT departments in Seoul's various agencies that maintain information on bus and train routes, traffic congestion and parking availability will each transmit that data to private-sector partners charged with building the technology. As is true of local agencies in America, coordinating all of those silos for a centralized project is a cumbersome task, said Willis. Most IT workers who have participated in multiagency IT projects can attest to the importance of a "higher" government power mandating them. Cisco always sells a city's mayor on a CUD plan first to establish a clear mandate that agencies can't ignore.

One long-term goal for Seoul's Smart Transportation Project is futuristic. Someday the system might be able to automatically route buses and trains where riders are waiting and bypass vacant stops, Willis said. Citizens would use their smartphones or on-site bus stop devices to alert the system they need a ride. Willis said that could shorten waits.

"The whole routing of buses would become a more flexible and demand-affected process. The first thing you need to do is connect all the buses and other transport assets so you can see where they all are and communicate with all of them. Even that step has not been taken by most cities yet," Willis said.

Andy Opsahl

Andy Opsahl is a former writer and features editor for Government Technology magazine.