Other than the signs, the highways look similar to Canadian thoroughfares
Other than the signs, the highways look similar to Canadian thoroughfares. Click image to enlarge

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Article and photos by Jil McIntosh

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The driving scene in Korea

Seoul, South Korea – The language on the signs is unfamiliar, the gas stations are all full-service and there isn’t a speck of litter on the street – or a lick of graffiti on the buildings – but to a visitor from Canada, the automotive scene, surprisingly, isn’t all that much different from what you’d see over here. It’s a real eye-opener from what one might expect, whether it’s on multi-lane highways that resemble the Trans-Canada, or small alleyways lined with tiny restaurants and cramped, overstocked stores.

Other than the signs, the highways look similar to Canadian thoroughfares
The SsangYong Actyon Sport
The Ferrari dealership is surprisingly low-key
At the sumptuous Imperial Palace hotel, a customer's Maybach awaits
At the sumptuous Imperial Palace hotel, a customer's Maybach awaits
Top to bottom: Hyundai and Kia; The SsangYong Actyon Sport; The Ferrari dealership is surprisingly low-key; At the sumptuous Imperial Palace hotel, a customer’s Maybach awaits; One-way streets are common in these narrow quarters. Click image to enlarge

I’d never been anywhere in Asia before, but from what I’d read and heard, I’d expected a city filled with the tiniest of cars, all sporting stick shifts and diesel engines. In fact, the opposite is true: the vast majority of cars are midsize or larger, they almost all come with automatic transmissions, and while SUVs are more likely to use diesel engines, almost all cars run on gasoline, dispensed from huge, clean stations manned by uniformed attendants, at the equivalent of about $1.50 per litre. (And yes, they drive on the right, as we do.)

According to a resident, Hyundai and Kia command some 78 per cent of the market, no doubt due as much to stiff tariffs on imported vehicles as to any sense of national pride. SsangYong Motors and Daewoo – bundled with GM – are also native producers. The Detroit Three have considerable presence here, as do the Japanese automakers; for the more upscale, there is BMW and Mini, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and Audi, and for the really big spenders, I spotted Ferrari (in a surprisingly low-key dealership in Seoul) and Maserati, and one morning there was a Maybach parked outside my hotel.

In Seoul, most of the cars I saw are relatively new and in good shape; a resident told me that many Koreans keep their cars only for three or four years, simply because they want to have whatever’s new. Outside the city, they’re more likely to be older, and while body damage isn’t all that common, faded paint is usually the norm.

The lack of damage is surprising, at least at first glance, when the city first appears to be a wild mishmash of cars, small trucks, scooters, bicycles and pedestrians, along with drivers who park wherever they can find a spot, which often includes any empty spot on the wide sidewalks of the major streets. A resident told me to watch carefully, though, and look for the relationships between all the road users. Once I did, I could see patterns in the chaos. Drivers make a huge number of U-turns, crossing many lanes of traffic on the wide major streets, so that they can pull up in front of the buildings where they want to stop: however, I discovered that they only do it in specific areas, where signs allow for the otherwise risky manoeuvres, so that all road users can expect drivers to do this.

Other than the signs, the highways look similar to Canadian thoroughfares
The narrow sidestreets have no sidewalks, and pedestrians, cars and scooters have to work together. Click image to enlarge

Scooter drivers, many of them making lunchtime food deliveries, travel with traffic on straight stretches but then use pedestrian signals to get across major intersections. For the most part, pedestrians also obey the walk signals, especially on the widest streets where they may be crossing up to eight lanes.

It’s a little different on the side streets. Seoul is filled with a maze of tiny alleyways, many of them so narrow that they’re one-way only. They’re usually lined with small restaurants and shops, and there are no sidewalks; it becomes even tougher to walk along them when stores put out displays or cars park in front of them. Here, I was told, drivers, pedestrians and scooter riders follow an unwritten code where each is aware of the other, and gives or takes depending on what everyone is doing. No one expects to automatically have the right-of-way, and everyone seemingly goes wherever and whenever it makes the most sense. In some instances, cars drove slowly by me with only inches to spare.

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