Highways for Habitats #12: Cheonggye Freeway, Seoul

CheonggyecheonTransportation planning is tough. Roads have to serve a number of (sometimes competing) purposes. Roads whose primary purpose is moving people and goods quickly through a community often have a detrimental effect on the communities they bisect (see: the history of freeways in Detroit). Take state trunk lines for example, which you can recognize because they’re usually twice as wide to cross as the other roads in a neighborhood, and, of course, highways and interstates. We’re currently running a series of posts featuring creative solutions from around the globe to make these roads – roads that must run through communities – also work to serve those communities. Check out more about our inspiration here.

South Korean capital city Seoul grew in the same patterns as many others – along the transportation routes of its rivers. The east-west Cheonggyecheon, meaning “clear water stream,” is the main waterway, with many smaller tributaries stretching north-south. Roads were built along these waterways, and unfortunately, the city’s waste was carried out on them. By the 1900’s the rivers were polluted sewers, and many water channels were covered to create an underground sewage system. The Cheonggyecheon – bordered by slums and full of pollution – and its banks became a symbol of poverty and filth.

For 22 years, Starting in 1955, the river underwent a series of construction projects to completely cover it. The banks became local roads 4 lanes wide in each direction, and the elevated Cheonggye Freeway, with two lanes in each direction, was built above the covered river (resutling in a crossing 12 lanes wide!). At first, the development served as a symbol of industrialization in Korea and attracted modern stores and businesses. This new life was short-lived, however.  What was at one time the prideful center of the city had gone from sewage stream to traffic filled, noisy and polluted declining downtown.

In the late ‘90s Seoul wanted to attract tourism and new investments by improving quality of life and environmental standing, while also highlighting the city’s culture and history. The downtown area was the focus of the revitalization, including the Cheonggye freeway and the declining area that surrounded it. With broad-based public support (79% according to one study), the Cheonggyecheon waterway restoration was completed in 2005.

Today the river is open to air, and a 3.6-mile linear park provides pedestrians access to the water with seating and lighting. The park has become Seoul’s new main street, providing residents with public space, unobstructed sunlight along the waterfront, and a connection to the city’s past.

This project is not an example of freeway removal due to underuse or obsolescence, as is the case in many freeway downsizing or removal projects. The Cheonggye Freeway was still considered a vital automobile carrier, with estimates as high as 168,000 cars per day, so the city strengthened its public transit alternatives. In 2003, before freeway closure, a Bus Rapid Transit line was instituted along the freeway route, designed to provide an alternative for all of the hundreds of thousands of regular freeway users. The city also unveiled plans to improve bus service and bus lanes to complement the underground metro system.

Seoul today has an efficient and coordinated public transportation system; nine major subway lines extend to the suburbs, and over 400 bus routes serve above ground. As one of largest and fastest growing cities across the globe, Seoul has kept pace by building one of the most comprehensive urban transit systems in the world. The city took control of its future, and in a show of spectacular, forward-thinking planning, turned an eyesore into a loved public amenity.

Photo from longzijun on flickr.com