Seoul’s Owl Bus: Why did it work? (Part 2)

Source (Cover Image): Seoul Metropolitan Government, 2016

Seoul’s Owl Bus service has been recognised for its success – not only in South Korea, where the Busan Metropolitan Government had followed its manual and begun operating late night bus services (Cities Alliance, 2014) but also on the global stage, as one of the key projects propelling Seoul to becoming one of the World’s Best Smart City. Many cities, ranging from Bangkok (Figure 1), Masdar (Figure 2), to Philadelphia, have faced difficulties in effectively utilising technology to tackle urban problems. Therefore, this post will examine the key strengths behind the success of Seoul’s Owl Bus services as a smart initiative.

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Figure 1. Bangkok has been suffering from chronic traffic congestions. However, instead of channelling budgets into improving its local rail lines such as the new Purple line connects outer Bangkok with central Bangkok which is severely underutilised, the Thai government has just approved a 179 billion-baht high-speed rail project (tapping on Japanese bullet train technology) connecting Bangkok and north-east Thailand.

Source: Bangkok Post, 2016 (top) and The Nation, 2013 (bottom)

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Figure 2. Masdar City – A green city or a ghost town? Back in 2006, the project was touted as the future global hub for the cleantech industry with state-of-the-art technological solutions such as driverless cars and smart technologies to resist the scorching desert heat. However, as of 2016, in stark contrast to the initial plan for 50,000 residents and 40,000 commuters, only 300 people live there.

Source: The Guardian, 2016


Not utilising technology just for the sake of it

The approach that the Seoul Metropolitan Government (SMG) had taken was the linear method of identifying problems and crafting solutions, with its people at the core of the process. Unfortunately, many cities Smart cities and smart technology have become a buzzword and an identity that many cities wish to take on, where is it almost possible to claim that “all cities want to be smart” (Chen et al., 2017: 382). Therefore, many cities fall prey to the phenomenon of technology solutions “looking for a problem” – placing excessive emphasis on investing and promoting technology while losing sight of the ultimate goal of improving the quality of people’s lives (Townsend, 2013; Anthopoulos, 2016).

Off the top of my head, the failure of Philadelphia’s municipal broadband effort is a classic example. Back in 2005, Philadelphia was buzzing with excitement over the possibility of establishing a citywide wireless network. However, it failed to recognise that its community was not digitally equipped and ready and hence fell through.

Simple: You can provide affordable broadband access, but if the digitally illiterate don’t have computers and proper training, what’s the use? It’s like giving an English speaker a Mandarin dictionary.

– Abraham, 2015

Therefore, one of the key reasons for the success of Seoul’s Owl Bus services was effectively appropriating of technology while putting its community first, to solve the prevalent issue of lack of accessibility to transportation after midnight.

Welding the right side of technology as a double-edged sword 

However, even with effective utilisation of technology to solve urban problems, technological solutions are often likened to be double-edged sword due to the inherent uneven access to technology (Anthopoulos, 2016). Unsurprisingly, there is a correlation of lower technology uptake in more deprived neighbourhoods in cities (Winden, 2001). While Seoul may face the problems of a lack of voice and representation by its less-advantaged citizens, it was able to tap on technology to reduce inequality in other aspects of urban life. Most of the late-night commuters are students, self-employed small business owners or workers on shifts, with no or low salaries yet still having to pay high charges with only taxis available to return home (Cities Alliance, 2014). Therefore, the utilisation of online citizen-participation and big data analysis gave rise to the Seoul Owl Bus service which improved the mobility rights for the socially (women and young students) and economically (low-wage shift workers) disadvantaged in Seoul.

Concluding thoughts

While the stars may have aligned for this initiative to work out well, I thought that a key theme to its success was its people-centric focus at each stage – from the identification of the problem, devising of solution and to the implementation. The continuous involvement and engagement of citizens not only empowered citizens with a stake in creating a better living urban environment but also served to constantly remind policy-makers of their key beneficiary – the people of Seoul.

[522 words]


  • Chen, Y., A. Ardila-Gomez and G. Frame. (2017) Achieving energy savings by intelligent transportation systems investments in the context of smart cities. Transportation Research Part D, 54, 381-396.
  • Townsend, A.M. (2013) Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia. New York: W.W. Norton Inc.
  • Anthopoulos, L. (2016) Smart utopia VS smart reality: Learning by experience from 10 smart city cases. Cities, 63, 128-148.

  • Winden, W.V. (2001) The End of Social Exclusion? On Information Technology Policy as a Key to Social Inclusion in Large European Cities. Regional Studies, 35, 9, 861-877.
  • Cities Alliance (2014) Solutions from Seoul: “Owl Bus” Based on Big-Data Technology. Cities Alliance, [online]. Available at: [Accessed 1 Dec. 2017].



One thought on “Seoul’s Owl Bus: Why did it work? (Part 2)”

  1. I really relate to your key argument here – people-centric focus amidst all the technological improvements that the city government may want to drive. Indeed, many literature often focus on the hard aspects of ‘sustainable’/ ‘smart’ developments but do not explore in-depth the soft aspects that are very much important (and site-specific) as well!

    Liked by 1 person

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