Chungju is, geographically, a tiny city. I pretty much walked across it, both north-to-south and east-to-west today, and it took me about 3-4 hours. It’s compact, but ‘tall’: most people live in huge 30-storey apartment blocks. 210,000 people are packed into about 5 square miles. I walked from the north end of town, where I live, downtown, which is slightly more densely built–mostly with boutiques and restaurants. I can’t imagine owning a car here, because I can literally walk anywhere in the city in about 40-50 minutes. With a bike, I could get anywhere in under 15. There is, and I mean this literally, a rice paddy-surrounded mountain less than a mile from my apartment. Covered in trees! We’re talking picturesque Chinese painting style mountain here, folks! This city is packed in tight!
And yet, there are cars everywhere! The only reason I couldn’t get across town even faster is because at every major street you have to wait a minute or two to cross, because the traffic is intense. There are cars parked everywhere, and most of the big stores have huge parking decks. There are both intra- and inter-city buses as well as trains, so it’s not like there aren’t public transport options.
So I’m curious as to why most (all?) Koreans seem to think they need a car. Urban planners in the US have talked for decades about how compact cities would solve many logistical problems for us; at the top of their list is limiting or even eliminating traffic congestion. If cities are dense enough and suburbs are non-existent, public transportation and, well, our feet, would be completely sufficient for getting around. In Korea, which has a large population living in a tiny space (48 million people living in a country 1/6 the size of Texas–and note that something like 70% of that land is mountain), you would expect people to rely on public transportation and their own two feet. Yet, at least in my city, that’s not the case.
Why not? Why do people pay big money for cars, and big money for gas (which is comparable in cost to gasoline in Europe) just for the privilege to sit in traffic? It’s something I’m really curious about. My first thought is that owning a car is a form of conspicuous consumption: it proves that you have a good education and a good job. You can separate yourself from the peasants by driving your Kia around. And of course, plenty of Americans buy a car (or two, or three…) for similar reasons. But the major difference is that cars really are useful, and even necessary, through most of the US. Even in Richmond, which is reasonably dense at its center, you need a car to get to the malls or any big stores (Target, Wal-Mart, etc.) And these stores are increasingly the only place to get some stuff (unless you want to pay an extra 100% at a Carytown boutique).
So, this post is really a question: why do Koreans own cars? Beyond the status symbol aspect, are there other driving reasons? Any thoughts, links, or comments appreciated!