‘It’s a godsend’: 9-cent taxi rides in rural South Korea


On a current overcast morning, a village on South Korea’s west coast confirmed no signal of human stirring till 5 older residents slowly emerged by way of the fog that shrouded lush, inexperienced rice paddies.

The group was ready for what would as soon as have been an unaffordable luxurious on this rural nook of the nation: a taxi to take them procuring and to docs’ appointments within the county seat 20 minutes away.

However even the poorest amongst them may simply afford this journey. Every passenger’s share of the entire fare can be measured not in {dollars} however in cents.

“It’s a godsend,” stated one of many passengers, Na Jeong-soon, 85.

Their village is in Seocheon County, the birthplace of the Taxi of Hope, higher often known as “the 100-won taxi” (100 gained is about 9 cents).

Again in 2013, the county confronted a disaster. As its inhabitants declined, so did the variety of bus passengers, which led to unprofitable routes being canceled. Then bus drivers went on strike. The place as soon as there had been three buses a day, all of the sudden none got here in any respect, stranding those that didn’t personal vehicles in distant hamlets.

The county’s answer? Let individuals name taxis to remoted villages the place so few lived that no bus firm needed to serve them. The taxis would cost passengers solely 100 gained for brief journeys, with the county authorities selecting up the remainder of the fare.

Whereas the service is hottest with older, low-income residents, anybody whose hamlet is greater than 700 meters (2,300 ft) from the closest bus cease can name a 100-won taxi after they journey to markets in close by cities.

The concept proved so profitable that quickly, with the backing from the nationwide authorities in Seoul, Seocheon’s answer unfold to different counties, serving to revolutionize public transportation in rural South Korea.

“The taxi now drives me all the best way to my doorstep,” Na stated. “You possibly can’t think about what it was like in older days once I needed to haul my procuring bag all the best way from the bus cease to my place. It killed my legs, however there is no such thing as a one round right here to assist previous people like me.”

For years, South Korea has reported one of many lowest birthrates on the planet, making a fast-aging inhabitants and inflicting strains in all points of society, from its welfare price range to public transportation to varsities.

The impression of the demographic shift is essentially the most seen in hundreds of rural villages whose younger individuals, together with Na’s youngsters, have left for giant cities for better-paying jobs. In Na’s village of Seondong, the variety of households, as soon as as many as 25, has declined to a dozen.

Authorities officers say supporting the 100-won taxi companies is much cheaper than deploying sponsored buses to the tiny hamlets tucked between mountains the place few individuals aside from arthritic, retired farmers stay — and constructing wider roads to accommodate these buses.

Native taxi drivers have welcomed this system, too, as a result of it brings additional revenue.

“I most likely know extra about these previous people than anybody else as a result of I drive them two or 3 times per week,” stated Lee Ki-yeop, 65, a 100-won taxi driver. “When considered one of them misses my taxi for per week or two, I do know that there’s something improper with them.”

For Na and her buddies, the taxi journey to Seocheon’s county seat, also referred to as Seocheon — and to a different city the place there’s a farmers market each 5 days — is just about the one time they enterprise out. Along with selecting up groceries and seeing their docs, they trade information with acquaintances from different villagers, like who was taken to a nursing house and who died.

Seocheon boasts two UNESCO World Heritage points of interest: a centuries-old apply of weaving advantageous material from ramie crops, and its tidal flats teeming with marine life. A part of South Chungcheong province, the county can be house to sogokju, stated to be the oldest kind of rice wine in Korea.

Through the bird-migrating seasons, vacationers from throughout South Korea drive to Seocheon to observe flocks of longbills, mallards and honking swans feeding on its tidal flats earlier than flying to Siberia.

However the county didn’t escape the upheaval that South Korea’s speedy industrialization wrought on its rural cities. Its ramie material business declined, with most of South Korea’s garments now imported or made from artificial supplies. Folks drink extra imported wine and beer than sogokju.

The county’s inhabitants shrank from 160,000 within the Nineteen Sixties to 51,000 this 12 months, almost 38% of them 65 or older. In Na’s village, the youngest residents had been a pair of their 60s.

Seocheon, the county seat, has all of the seems to be of a fast-aging group. Throughout a current market day, its orthopedic and different medical clinics had been jammed with aged sufferers.

On the close by bus and taxi cease, stooped, older passengers with procuring bundles sat beneath an awning like a row of birds, ready for his or her buses or 100-won taxis to indicate up. A youthful assistant in a yellow vest, deployed by the county administration, was busy serving to them carry their baggage on and off the taxis.

When Statistics Korea carried out a nationwide survey in 2010, a scarcity of public transportation was one of many greatest grievances for older villagers in rural South Korea who had neither vehicles nor youngsters who may drive for them.

“It was particularly troublesome for previous individuals to stroll to the closest bus cease when it snowed in winter or was scorching scorching in summer time,” stated Noh Pak-rae, the highest authorities official in Seocheon.

The 100-won taxis carried almost 40,000 passengers from 40 villages in Seocheon final 12 months. This system value the county $147,000.

This text initially appeared in The New York Occasions.

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