What a simple idea can do for sustainable transport

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This is the story of an idea. In fact, of a very simple and creative idea that is having huge impact on the way people move. This idea is helping reduce travel time, save money and increase the connectivity of big and small cities.
A map of South Korea's rest areas
and transfer points

So who is behind this brilliant idea? Actually, it is rather something that we all take for granted in developed countries, as well as some developing countries’ expressways or highways: the rest area.

We normally associate rest areas with a quick stop for food, gas or other necessities. But what if these rest areas could add even more value to transportation, and without huge expenses? This is precisely what the South Korean government did back in 2010 when it opened the first “Regional Buses to Regional Buses Transfer Centers,” utilizing rest areas along expressways. The idea was gestated at the Korea Transport Institute (KOTI), one of the partners of the World Bank’s Transport and ICT global practice.

Since 2010, rest areas have played an effective role as “sub-hubs,” or transfer centers for regional buses, which in turn have more than doubled the number of regional routes, increasing the accessibility to smaller cities, and all this without having to go through the capital Seoul, where there is often too much traffic and congestion.

We know that bus transport is a more effective transportation mode than individual cars, particularly in terms of moving more people and reducing congestion and pollution. But in Korea, as well as other countries, there are several reasons why bus transport is less favored than cars, but one of the most important is a lack of accessibility to smaller cities. That is to say, bus transport cannot provide door-to-door service. In fact, accessibility in regional bus transport is worse than within cities mainly because regional buses tend to operate mostly non-stop services between larger cities.

Therefore, in South Korea it is not easy to travel to small or medium-size cities via bus, even though there is plenty of road infrastructure. That is why transfer sub-hubs is a creative concept for strengthening the accessibility of buses to smaller cities. Implementing an effective transfer system is easier said than done, however.  

Let’s assume, for example, that no bus route offers direct service from a medium-sized city to a final destination in a smaller city. For the bus traveler, the only way is to transfer in a terminal hub located in a nearby large city. And this terminal can be located in the opposite direction to where the bus needs to go, or the roads to the terminal can be heavily congested. This means an increase in travel time, distance and cost in the transfer process. Accordingly, bus transport is not popular for travelling between big and smaller cities.

In order to tackle this challenge, KOTI designed the concept for regional bus transfer centers. The basic idea is to develop simple transfer centers in rest areas along expressways rather than in terminals or hubs inside cities.

As of 2014, there were 176 rest areas along expressways in South Korea. And to make the bus transfer system work, a number of activities were implemented, including; drawing bus stopping lanes, rescheduling bus timetables; publicizing the location and benefits of bus transfer centers, etc. 

Furthermore, the development of an expressway rest area transfer center is not expensive considering the broader positive impacts that it brings. It cost less than US$1 million to establish each transfer center. During the first eight months of the project, according to a KOTI study,120,000 passengers transferred between regional buses in only six transfer centers built in rest areas. The same study suggests that prior to the establishment of those regional transfer centers, more than a quarter of those passengers (25.5 percent) had travelled to their destinations by individual cars. In other words, car usage was reduced by a quarter!

Other results of the 2011 study led by KOTI include:
  • Reduction of travel time by 16.6 percent (255min→ 213min)
  • Reduction of travel fare by 7.8 percent (20 dollars→ 18.46 dollars)
  • Increase of regional routes by 140.9 percent (181 routes→ 436 routes) 

All these results point to one direction: regional transfer centers along express ways can be effective in reducing reliance on individual cars and encouraging use of buses.

This is an important lesson that other developed and developing countries could explore implementing, particularly when policy makers from around the world are looking for ways to increase the connectivity between big and smaller cities while incentivizing the use of mass transport to further reduce congestion and pollution. This project also shows that through simple and creative ideas like the regional bus transfer centers, we can help make transportation more sustainable. 

What do you think?  Do you know of other simple ideas that can help decrease the carbon footprint of the transport sector?   


Nak Moon Sung

Senior Transport Specialist

Mauricio Ríos

Communications Officer, Transport

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