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Seoul says ‘adieu’ to another overpass with blowout party

Seodaemun Mayor Mun Seok-jin rocks out to Crying Nut at a free street show on Seodaemun Overpass on July 11. Photo by Jon Dunbar
Seodaemun Mayor Mun Seok-jin rocks out to Crying Nut at a free street show on Seodaemun Overpass on July 11. Photo by Jon Dunbar
Jon Dunbar
Written by Jon Dunbar

Seodaemun Overpass closed to traffic on Friday, July 10. On July 11, a party was held on the ageing overpass from 3 to 9, and the next day, demolition began.

“It’s good news and we are very happy to destroy that kind of overpass,” says Seodaemun District Mayor Mun Seok-jin in a phone conversation with the Korea Observer.

The 44-year-old overpass, built in 1971, ran northeast to southwest over the Seodaemun Station (Line 5) intersection, right where the three districts of Seodaemun-gu, Jongno-gu, and Jung-gu come together. But why is it going away, and why are so many celebrating its destruction?

Seodaemun Overpass. Photo by Jon Dunbar

Seodaemun Overpass hosts a street party on its last day open on July 11. Photo by Jon Dunbar

In 1968, three years before Seodaemun Overpass was built, German mathematician Diedrich Braess made a paradoxical discovery in his analysis of traffic distribution: adding more roads to a road network can actually impede traffic, rather than facilitate its flow. He speculated that additional roads set up a mass-scale prisoner’s dilemma, with all drivers making the most selfish route choices. Braess’ paradox also implies that an over-capacity road system can be improved by removing some of the roads, and what is happening in Seoul is directly related to that.

Braess’ paradox has been tested with the 2003 removal of Cheonggyecheon Overpass. The overpass, opened in 1976, was estimated to have been used by 168,000 cars per day prior to demolition. To people who could do simple math, this sounded disastrous: where would those 168,000 cars go? Of course, the mathematics behind traffic flow is far more complex. Sure enough, once the overpass was gone and downtown commuters adapted to the change, overall traffic congestion had decreased.

A large part of the reason for the decrease in traffic was due to improvements to public transportation.

“Removing Cheonggyecheon was done parallel to the public transport reform — free transfer system, four bus types,” says Nikola Medimorec, an urbanism blogger who contributes to Kojects.com. “Public transport became more efficient and convenient. That’s why traffic reduced downtown and no traffic chaos occured after the Cheonggyecheon restoration.”

Cheonggyecheon gets all the attention because of the iconic urban stream restored there and its political significance, but many of the city’s other 100 overpasses have disappeared with far less attention.

Since 2002, a total of 18 overpasses have been taken down, in line with the new priority toward resident quality of life, street aesthetics and beautification, pedestrian-oriented spaces, and commercial revitalisation.

Last year, the city removed two other overpasses, Ahyeon and Yaksu, two projects that also started with a big party.

Ahyeon Overpass, the country’s first, was built in 1968, a curved passage spanning one kilometer from Ahyeon Station toward Chungjeongno Station, supporting traffic between Sinchon and downtown and connecting Seodaemun-gu to Mapo-gu.

In 2011, it received a grade of C, meaning it required urgent maintenance. In the end, it was costing around USD 7.5 million to keep the aging elevated highway standing. It closed on Saturday, February 8, 2014, with a similar street party allowing Seoul pedestrians the chance to step onto this space previously only occupied by speeding road traffic.

The newly cleared space below was turned into a bus lane, and the remaining businesses and residents were happy with the development.

Ahyeon overpass demolition by Jon Dunbar

Ahyeon Overpass closed to traffic February 8, 2014. Photo by Jon Dunbar

Ahyeon Overpass closed to traffic on February 8, 2014.

Ahyeon overpass closed by Jon Dunbar

Ahyeon overpass closed. Photo by Jon Dunbar

Later that year in July, Yaksu Overpass met a similar fate. This overpass, built in 1984, ran from the direction of Dongguk University, bypassing Yaksu Intersection, toward Geumho Tunnel, which leads straight toward Dongho Bridge. A party was held on the last day of this one too, underscoring the celebrative nature of this kind of event.

Yaksu

The much younger Yaksu Overpass was quickly dismantled in August 2014. Photo by Jon Dunbar

And then on Saturday, July 11, community members of all ages from infant to elderly came out to celebrate the closure of the overpass in Seodaemun and take back the street, just as they had for 2014’s overpass closures.

“The party’s meaning is farewell and goodbye to our Seodaemun overpass,” says Mayor Mun. “Another meaning is we are promising to develop the area. It’s very close to the center of Seoul so we look forward to developing it.”

At the event, the asphalt was marked with chalk art, the side-rails adorned with balloons. Booths and carts were set up to offer visitors refreshments on the hot day.

A gallery of photos showed the bridge’s history dating back to before construction. Seodaemun Mayor Mun was on hand to offer a congratulatory speech and rock out to legendary Korean punk band Crying Nut, who headlined a free concert at the northeastern end of the overpass.

“I love the idea of celebrating the closure of an overpass like this,” says Paul, an English teacher from Australia who attended the event. “These overpasses are a defining feature of Seoul’s urban landscape and it’s great to celebrate the utility they’ve provided over the years instead of merely allowing them to silently disappear.”

Paul said he enjoyed the party as it strengthened community.

“I think the best part is that its an opportunity to gather the community and celebrate something at a local level,” he said. “[It] really builds bonds between the community and their city.”

There is no doubt that more overpasses are set to fall, with overpasses in Nodeul, Guro, Mullae, Hwarang, Hannam, and Noryangjin under consideration.

But the most prominent, controversial one that everyone’s watching right now is the 938-meter Seoul Station Overpass, connecting the west side of Seoul Station to the east, where it opens to traffic at the southwestern corner of Namdaemun Market. The 45-year-old overpass, built in 1970, is in bad shape and has been closed to heavy trucks since 2009.

Seoul Station overpass

Seoul Overpass has four ramps: three west of the train tracks, and one on the east side near Namdaemun Market. Photo by Jon Dunbar

But rather than demolishing the aged structure, Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon is championing a revitalisation project that will transform the overpass into a garden in the sky, reminiscent of New York’s High Line, a successful revitalisation project that turned a 2.33-kilometer disused railroad bridge into an aerial greenway.

The Seoul Station project is nicknamed Skygarden by MVRDV, a Dutch design firm selected in an international competition to solicit a winning design. It will house an arboretum with 254 species of trees, shrubs, and flowers, and newly built stairways, ramps, and elevators will enable pedestrians to easily cross from one side of the tracks to the other, and to visit Namdaemun Market from Seoul Station.

Seoul Station Overpass is set to close in October 2015, and it is likely there will be a similar closing party, but it will certainly be dwarfed by the opening party of the completed Skygarden in 2017.

The plan currently faces strong opposition from Namdaemun Market vendors, many of whom have erected banners opposing the closing of the overpass. The banners cite concerns the removal could cause bad traffic in the area.

However, looking at the example set by Cheonggyecheon, the closure is highly unlikely to increase traffic. The only kind of traffic this overpass is likely to cause is foot traffic, as the Skygarden brings in more customers crossing from Seoul Station.

The Seoul Station Overpass project might be advantageous for the nearby marketeers and not a single business owner will have to be evicted to build the Skygarden.

“The Seoul Station Overpass is a vital connection for the Namdaemun Market east of Seoul Station with manufacturers on the western side of the station,” says Medimorec. “Until now they could easily send deliveries to Mapo and other parts in western Seoul but without the overpass it will be more difficult. I can totally understand their position and they are now already struggling to keep their business alive. I hope that they seize the opportunity and that they see the overpass as a chance to alter their model or try out new businesses. The market and the neighborhood at the other end of Seoul Station can benefit if they adjust.”

Namdaemun market. Banner reads: Killing Namdaemun market businesses due to traffic jam, absolutely against the plan to change the overpass into a park

In Namdaemun Market, a protest banner reads: Seoul Station Overpass is killing Namdaemun Market businesses causing traffic jam, absolutely against making the overpass into a park! Photo by Jon Dunbar

Medimorec has full faith that the project will become a famous tourist attraction benefiting the local community and its commerce. “More tourists will visit Namdaemun and tourists will then even go to the area west of Seoul Station,” he says. “And how should the city address [community complaints]? Involve all groups into the planning and empower them to find long-term solutions on their own. It sounds very easy but it’s very difficult.”

The city has already experimented with closure of the overpass, offering two car-free events in which the elevated road closed to traffic and hosted a wildly popular street festival, held last year on October 12 and this year on May 10. The two events allowed pedestrians total access to the bridge’s surface, with a wide variety of events, activities, performances, and historic information on the overpass while giving them the opportunity to appreciate the view from a new perspective and provide feedback to the city on the fate of the overpass. Each event ended with participants being shooed off the road before traffic resumes.

Seoul station overpass party

Seoul Station Overpass closed to car traffic October 12. Photo by Jon Dunbar

Seoul Station Overpass may be a contentious case, but the demolition of most other overpasses has been happily accepted by their communities. Mayor Mun claims that the demolition of Seodaemun Overpass had absolutely no opposition whatsoever.

“Everyone wants to demolish that kind of structure,” says Mayor Mun. “It is the best symbol of the modernisation of our Seoul, but our time is 2015 and nowadays we do not need that kind of structure; 44 years have passed and it’s just an obstacle to develop our city.”

About the author

Jon Dunbar

Jon Dunbar

Jon Dunbar is a contributing reporter for the Korea Observer working for the Korean office of Cloudbric, an SaaS cybersecurity company. He is the editor of Broke in Korea, the longest-running English-language zine dedicated to the local punk scene. He runs Daehanmindecline.com, a weblog dedicated to the Korean music scene, urban exploration in Korea, cats, and miscellaneous other things.

  • Luke

    I heard news about a possible development in this exact spot, built over the rail tracks just like Hudson Yards in New York, of two large skyscrapers and a public green area. That, frankly, sounds like the best of all worlds kind of situation.

  • flyingsword

    More or less roads isn’t the problem, it is that almost no one in Korea follows any traffic laws.

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