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[The New York Times] In Seoul, Green Transit Is Mayor’s Pet Project
2010-05-18  4,215

SEOUL — On a recent morning, the mayor of Seoul stopped by a local amusement park to inaugurate an electric tram system to ferry tourists around the grounds, replacing an old noisy one that belched exhaust. Music blared. A phalanx of TV crews trailed him.

Choe San-Hun/The International Herald Tribune

Mayor Oh Se-hoon of Seoul, front, riding an electric tram system at an amusement park with a city councilman, Kim Ki-sung, left.


For some politicians, the event might have been an obligatory photo opportunity, something to be endured en route to more important meetings. But for Mayor Oh Se-hoon, who has been striving to build a defining legacy, it was a signature moment.

“We are the first in the world to use the technology this way,” he said, admiring the way the tram sucks electricity from power strips buried beneath the road. “What we are doing is changing history.”

Mr. Oh is among a new breed of South Korean politicians who increasingly stake their political fortunes on so-called green growth. For Mr. Oh, that means creating jobs based on environmentally friendly technologies and figuring out how to make this city, home to one-fifth of the country’s 49 million people, a healthier, more pleasant place to live.

Since taking office in 2006, Mr. Oh has tried to make the city look nicer and greener. Under his Design City slogan, the municipal authorities carted away urban eyesores like leaky shacks for shoe shiners and replaced them with artfully designed, government-subsidized kiosks. They revamped the old city center, turning part of its Kwanghwamun Boulevard into a plaza where children can skate in winter.

“My goal in the changing of the face of Seoul is all related to enhancing its attractiveness,” said Mr. Oh, who is seeking re-election as his four-year term winds down. “If the city is attractive, people, information and capital flow in. This in turn creates economic re-vitality and it also creates a lot of jobs.”

Perhaps the issue Mr. Oh has pursued most successfully is air pollution.

While some of his competitors in the election may dismiss some of Mr. Oh’s initiatives as gimmicky, even they concede that the pink haze that used to envelop the metropolis has largely disappeared. The amount of pollutants in Seoul’s air has dropped 20 percent in the last four years, according to city data.

His administration began by hosing down the streets at night to cut down on dust and started replacing conventional buses with vehicles that use natural gas.

Then Seoul joined 13 other major world cities in December in a vow to become more hospitable to electric vehicles. Although cities are home to only half the world’s population, they generate about 80 percent of all carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas.

Seoul began experimenting with hybrid taxis and plans to introduce its first electric buses in April. Within 10 years, the city will replace all 9,000 buses and 72,000 taxis with electric or hybrid vehicles, Mr. Oh said. It will spend 178 billion won ($156 million) on the effort in the next five years.

To encourage the shift, Seoul is buying electric cars for public use and offering subsidies for transport companies switching to green vehicles. It also promised motorists who drive electric cars discounts on parking fees and congestion charges.

“Our political and administrative needs to improve air quality make Seoul an early adopter of green cars,” said Kim Hwang-rae, head of the city government’s green car team. “South Korea started late in the green car revolution, but the public sector is leading the way, giving the industries an impetus to come along.”

The electric tram project at the amusement park is such an example. The vehicle was developed by Kaist, the country’s top government-financed university of science and technology, without involvement from major carmakers.

Mr. Oh recognized the potential of the new technology and his city financed its application at the amusement park.

Mr. Oh and other supporters describe it as a noble experiment that could revolutionize public transportation in South Korea and beyond. Like other electric vehicles, it has a battery. But it does not need to be plugged in, and it does not need overhead cables.