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The price for a trip on the Seoul subway starts at about $1. Compared to, for example, the London underground, which starts at about $2.00 (at the time of writing this question) or even Berlin S-Bahn which is about $3.40, this is incredibly cheap. One would think there is a compromise on quality for such a low price, but there really isn’t, especially considering:

  • Extreme cleanliness (and I do mean utterly extremely clean) for the trains, seats, stations, handrails - everything.
  • Superb reliability & speed
  • Free Wi-Fi !!?
  • Onboard TV screens
  • Impeccably maintained stations & trains. Everything seems brand new and super modern.

I have even heard that there are heated seats and footrests (but I didn't notice since I visited in summer)

All of these are arguably better than some underground trains elsewhere which I found less than clean. I haven’t been to London but I have seen videos and pictures, it doesn't look as clean as Korea?

How are they doing this?

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    See the "Funding" section here. Basically, government subsidies (probably intended to keep car usage down) and a young, modern system. – ceejayoz Jan 14 at 15:14
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    Not really the point, but (assuming those prices are USD) the London underground "starts at" about half of what you said. – Chris H Jan 14 at 15:17
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    Also, S-Bahn prices for Berlin start at US-$ 2.11 for adults and are cheaper for minors or other passengers paying a reduced rate. – DCTLib Jan 14 at 16:32
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    Invert your question: why is the subway in London so expensive. – Rg7x gW6a cQ3g Jan 15 at 12:35
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    How does cost of living and average salary compare between these cities? $1 USD seems cheap to a foreign visitor. If you live and earn an average salary in Seoul, is $1 actually a smaller percentage of your salary than riding the London Underground would be if you earned the average salary in London? – Anthony Grist Jan 15 at 16:59
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The price for riding a subway system has little to do with the cost of operating it, and more to do with how much the government is prepared to subsidize it and the government's attempts at load balancing different types of public transport.

For example the London Underground has lots of long lines with overloading problems on the center of those lines, and lighter loads further out. So tube fares involving zone 1 are relatively expensive, outer zones are cheaper and buses are cheaper still.

Also I don't know where you got your figures for the London Underground, maybe you were looking at a long journey or at overpriced paper tickets. London Underground fares start at £1.50 (~$2) for an off-peak journey that avoids zone 1.

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    +1 subsides are a major part of it. Transit systems have widely different farebox recovery ratios (and even within a system, those may be different between buses and subways, different distances, etc...), the proportion of a system's operating expenses paid for by passenger fares. And a system will have vastly different capital expenses depending on what construction/renovation projects it is undertaking and how much the government contributes to that cost. In many systems, fares make up a small portion of the total funding for the system – Zach Lipton Jan 15 at 6:43
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    Visited London with my girlfriend last year. We went from Golders Green to Chalk Farm. I used my Oyster card from when I used to live there and got charged £2.40 (IIRC). She bought a ticket and got charged £5.60 (IIRC). I did approximately £3.20 worth of damage to London Underground property to make up for it ;-) – Aaron F Jan 16 at 8:52
  • This article suggests that the London Underground is running a bigger loss - doesn't this mean that the total amount subsidised by the government is more than it is in South Korea? citymetric.com/transport/… – Marco Prins Jan 16 at 10:33
  • The profit/loss depends on many things, not just subsidy: wages (higher in London), maintenance costs (likely to be higher for a poorly-maintained old network), how much people actually pay for tickets based on different ticketing models, level of fare-dodging, fullness of trains, etc. – Stuart F Jan 17 at 17:23
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I think that you just have an unconscious expectation that the subway systems of advanced Western countries must necessarily be better than others. The fact is, that they aren't as essential to civilized life there as some other places and actually get way less love.

For comparison the Moscow subway:

  • costs 0.6 USD (https://www.rbth.com/travel/326613-how-to-use-troika-card)
  • had free WiFi as far back as 2014
  • very fast (going 80km/h underground is legit scary)
  • very reliable
  • not super new overall, but the old stations and the new ones are gorgeous (the ones build circa 1992-2008 are pretty drab).
  • maybe not as spotless as Seoul (can't compare, but South Koreans are super tidy), but certainly clean enough to put NY and Paris to shame, from what I've seen.
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    I find the frequent bang-bangs when the wheels pass over expansion gaps much more scary … but most scary on a Russian metro was when the light suddenly turned off in St. Petersburg. Nobody else in the car seemed surprised by the light having been gone when it came back a second or two later so I just thought it must be fine … – Jan Jan 15 at 9:31
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    50 mph in a tunnel scary.... Don't ride Chicago, Philly, NYC, Atlanta, DC, L.A. or San Francisco then. They all go 80kph-ish in tunnels. – Harper - Reinstate Monica Jan 15 at 11:01
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    Also, benevolent authoritarian governments are way more effective than democracies. South Korea isn't strictly speaking authoritarian, but also less democratic than Western Europe. – JonathanReez Jan 16 at 0:58
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    @JonathanReez As a South Korean, it feels weird to hear we are "less democratic than Western Europe". I didn't know foreigners would think like that. – user2652379 Jan 16 at 10:34
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    @user2652379 Lots of westerns think like that. They always measure the world from their perspective and think anything different is wrong, undemocratic etc. We're not all like that though. I find the comment offensive myself. – dan-klasson Jan 16 at 11:18
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Remember that in many places (especially in Western Europe), most users will not use single fare tickets but monthly passes instead.

In Paris for instance, even though the cheapest ticket is 1.49 € ($1.66, ticket t+ bought as a carnet of 10 on a Navigo contactless card, valid for travel on the whole metro network, RER inside Paris, Buses and Trams, no transfers between Metro/RER and Buses/Trams), most users have a monthly Navigo pass, which costs 75.20 € per month for the whole region, but their employer is required to pay 50% of that.

So even if they just do one return trip per weekday, that's 0.94 € ($1.04) per end-to-end trip, including any transfers on all 4 modes of transportation. And you can travel from one extreme of the region to the other for that price, and of course the cost per trip is even lower if you use public transport more often.

In Seoul like in many other Asian cities, there are no monthly passes with unlimited use. The "best deal" in Seoul is the commuter pass which costs 55,000원 for 60 rides but is valid for 30 days only, and is valid for the subway only.

If one does only one return trip per weekday, that's 1,375원 per trip ($1.19), which is not cheaper than the 1,250원 ($1.08) cost using single trip fares, and is only a win if users travel more often or make longer (and more expensive on single trip fares) trips.

So it is easy to dispute the fact that the cost is lower in Seoul than it is in other major cities.

In terms of quality of service, it is probably difficult to compare a relatively recent system (less than 50 years for the oldest part, with much of it a lot younger) with systems that are over a century old.

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    For those unsure what the circle with a couple of lines is: Korean for Won. – Jan Jan 15 at 16:29
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    For what it is worth, the official symbols for South Korean Won is ₩. Writing 원 is like writing dollars in full. – Taladris Jan 15 at 23:58
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    @Taladris Prices in South Korea are normally (almost always) written with with the 원 postfix. In the years I lived there I can't remember seeing the ₩ symbol at all, except perhaps on currency exchange places. – Omnimike Jan 16 at 21:35
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Part of the difference will be the overall standard of living and wage rates. Comparing wage rates is tricky (mean or median?, accounting for the cost of living, whether to deduct taxes & social security). But as a rough indication, look at this:

The minimum wage in the Republic of Korea is ₩8,350 (approximately US$7.20).

The minimum wage in the Federal Republic of Germany is €8.84 (approximately US$9.80).

The minimum wage in the UK is £8.21 (approximately US$10.80).

However, the very helpful link in @ceejayoz's comment strongly suggests that the main reason is that the Seoul system receives a bigger subsidy.

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    I would even say that it's not necessarily the subsidy, but the better utilisation. SINCE the system is well-managed (as evidenced by the high reliability etc.) and Seoul is rather high-density (without the american car fetishisation) it stands to reason that it is very highly utilized, which brings in a ton of cash itself even with the low price. But it is probably a mixture of both – Hobbamok Jan 15 at 10:00
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    FWIW, London wage rates are wildly different than those found in the rest of the country, so you're better off not using UK-averages in this context – Lightness Races in Orbit Jan 15 at 18:37
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    @LightnessRaceswithMonica looks like these are minimum wages, not average or median, so they're a somewhat even playing field. – FreeMan Jan 15 at 18:50
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    @FreeMan Yes but the intention was apparently to draw comparisons between the cost of living, and as a result of the above, the minimum wage for the whole UK is not terribly representative of the cost of living in London – Lightness Races in Orbit Jan 15 at 18:51
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    @LightnessRaceswithMonica …and yet public transport fares in Leeds [the town I grew up in] are higher than those in London [where I've lived for the past 30 years] – Tetsujin Jan 15 at 19:47
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How? Subsidies. The government would prefer people to use public transport instead of cars - and the best way to get them to do this is to make public transport so good that you'll tolerate its downsides. It also makes commuting easier, which can reduce pressures on housing around cities.

The ultimate example of this is Luxembourg. As of this coming summer, all public transport across the whole country becomes free. Having visited Luxembourg last year, I can testify that the cleanliness, quality and punctuality of their trains, trams and buses is better than the UK, France and Italy. Even last year, a return trip to anywhere in Luxembourg, on any bus or train, was only 4 Euros. (And less if you bought a travel card.)

The ultimate example in the opposite direction of course is the US. Public transport in the US receives little or no public subsidies. As a result, public transport is universally dirty, poorly-maintained and overcrowded, so everyone drives everywhere. Naturally this leads to gridlock and a greater need for roadbuilding and maintenance.

The irony which opponents of subsidies rarely spot is that roadbuilding and maintenance always come out of public funds. Effectively the public therefore subsidise cars from their taxes, because drivers do not directly pay for the cost of having accessible roads (except on toll roads). This is often missed when discussing subsidies for public transport. There is much discussion about how privatised railways and buses should pay for themselves, but much less about cars. Many countries do have some form of tax on vehicles, but to my knowledge no country has a direct ring-fenced link between taxation of road users and money spent on roadbuilding.

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