Life in Transit: South Korea's Senior Subwayers

Life in Transit: South Korea's Senior Subwayers

Controversy Surrounds Free-Fare Policy Amidst Concerns of Financial Strain on Public Transportation, Triggered by South Korea’s Senior Riders.

News Published 2023.10.24 | Woohui Kim 

It is 8 AM, and the Seoul Metro Station buzzes with commuters and office workers hurrying to catch their trains. However, this bustle subsides during the afternoon hours when the train’s onboard passengers become more of a senile demographic. They can be seen nodding off in their seats, gazing at the passing scenery, and engaging in shoulder stretches. This has now become a common occurrence in South Korea, with its rapidly aging population and its policy of free fare rides.

(Photo = Railway Technology)

In 1984, South Korea implemented its fare-free policy for those over 65 when the percentage of senior citizens was relatively low. However, fast forward to the present year, the percentage has surged to 18%, compared to the mere 4% in 1984. Demographers like Shin Seong-il express concerns that this issue would worsen, with Statistics Korea projecting a rise to 30% by 2035 and a potentially staggering 45% by 2070.

(Photo =

The free fare policy's economic burdens are apparent, but it is more important to consider the broader implications for the public transportation system. If the situation aligns with the forecasts, there is a risk of financial insolvency. Seoul Metro, the management of the Seoul subway system, already reports that it grapples with an annual net loss of 1 trillion won from 2020, resulting in an astonishing net loss of 14 trillion won. Consequently, if the issue persists, there is a probability of an increase in metro prices, reductions of metro lines, and number of maintenance checks performed. This not only causes inconvenience for citizens but also increases danger.

(Photo = Kyodo News)

Despite the government knowing the free fare policy's economic burden, they can not abolish it. This is because they acknowledge that many senior citizens benefit from the free fare policy. Also, the Korea Transport Institute reports that the free-fare policy was positively correlated with lowered rates of suicides and depression, as well as medical fees, as it keeps senior citizens active. But the imperative factor behind its de facto establishment is to maintain the honor of its senior citizens. Lee, a retired school teacher, asserts that the policy should be upheld as a sign of respect for the seniors who played a crucial role in advancing Korea as Asia's fourth-largest economy, especially during the challenges of the post-1950-1953 Korean War.

(Photo = Kyodo News)

Since Korea’s Senior Riders are the protagonists of this issue, we must  consider their thoughts. Jeon Jong-duke, a retired math professor, aged 85, has traveled to every “corner of Seoul” by riding the subway using the free-fare policy. He recounts that he usually read books and got off at different stations for urban wanderings and to be active. Furthermore, Park Jae-hong, a construction inspector, aged 73, regards subways as “meditative and relaxing,” saying that “it’s an oasis” for him. These personal anecdotes corroborate the study that the free-fare policy has benefits, reducing depression and encouraging Korea’s senior citizens to travel to different places and have a relaxed time. 

(Photo = Yonhap News)

However, not all senior subway riders support the free-fare policy. Some advocate for policy adjustments to ensure responsibility towards the future generations who may carry the financial burden. For example, Hwang Se-ja, a 66-year-old citizen, frequently rides the subway from her house to her daughter's house to babysit her young grandchildren. She felt ashamed as she could " pay around 5,000 won (US$3.89)," but the whole 80-minute journey was free. In response, Kim Sang-cheol, a 67-year-old retired banker, says that the policy is "such a waste." He emphasized that the benefit of free rides should be conferred to people below the poverty line. Also, many claim that the issue lies in age thresholds. Kim Ok-seon, a  68-year-old citizen, said, "I do not understand why I am categorized as an old person as I still have my job and do not even have any grandchild."

There is no doubt that the free-fare policy was established with good intentions. Nevertheless, given the economic challenges it poses and the senior citizen’s perspectives, re-evaluation is imperative, particularly amid the increasing elderly population and life expectancy. Indeed, in a recent survey conducted by the Seoul government, the average age of senior citizens perceived by Seoul's elderly was 7.6 years older than their official age of 65. The time has come for politicians and government officials to take prompt measures to revise the free-fare policy to align with Korea's changing demographics and economic realities.

#South Korea #SeniorCitizens #PublicTransportationSystem #MetroStation #FinancialBurden #PolicyReformation #FreeFarePolicy

Woohui Kim (