By Victoria Kim
Seoul, South Korea – The subway was heading towards its last stop north of Seoul. Along the way, hordes disembarked, with the determined and energetic step of those who have a place to go.
Far from the city center, the concentration of tall buildings became thinner and the afternoon sun filtered deeper into the train cars, which at that point were traveling on an elevated track. At the end of the line, many of those remaining on board were noticeably older, nodding off to sleep, staring out the window, and stretching their shoulders.
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Lee Jin-ho — dressed smartly in a straw hat, white Adidas sneakers, and a crisp hanbok — had traveled on two subway lines for more than an hour from his home to the last stop, Soyosan, on a hot August day. He walked about 90 meters past the station, rested briefly in the shade, and then immediately boarded the train heading back south.
Lee, an 85-year-old retired interior designer, is one of the multitude of seniors who ride the subway. Seoul, who take advantage of the country’s long-standing policy of not charging people over 65 for subway fares and spend their days riding trains to the end of the lines, or to nowhere in particular, and sometimes back again. . On long summer days—with temperatures averaging over 30 degrees Celsius in August in Seoul—the air conditioning is strong, people-watching is fascinating, and the city’s 320 kilometers of subway tracks offer almost unlimited possibilities for walks. urban.
“At home, I would just be bored, lying around,” Lee said.
Seniors who ride free make up about 15 percent of Seoul’s annual ridership, according to data from the two major subway operators. These passengers have become such an established part of the city’s fabric that they already have a nickname–”Jigong Geosa”, which is derived from the phrase “free metro” – and the lines and stations they frequent are well known.
Lee and his wife live in a small apartment and subsist on a pension of a few hundred dollars, and his wife is largely housebound after five knee surgeries. According to Lee, there’s no better way to spend the day than with a free ride. The day before, he rode the trains in a loop: south to the end of Line 4, northwest to the last stop on the Suin–Bundang Lineand back east on Line 1, without setting foot outside the subway system.
“One ride lasts exactly four hours,” he said.
Lee goes out alone several times a week and heads to one of two stops equidistant from his house: the Suyu station It is 1100 steps north; Mia station is 1250 steps south. (He has counted them).
Riders like Lee say they know how to respect the careful rhythms and unwritten rules of subway travel: Avoid rush hour, when the trains are full and everyone is in a hurry. Do not stand in front of seated young people, so that they do not feel pressured to give up their place.
“You read and you fall asleep,” he said. Jeon Jong-duek, an 85-year-old retired mathematics professor who was traveling with a book on the theory of Chinese poetry stuffed in his bag. “It’s remarkably cool. There isn’t a corner of Seoul that I don’t go to.”
Park Jae-hong, 73, who still works sporadically as a construction inspector and has been dabbling in modeling, said he found riding the subway meditative and relaxing. “For me it is an oasis,” he said.
There are six seats reserved for older passengers at each end of each train car, but Seoul overall appears to have less room for older people, even at a time when South Korea is aging rapidly.
Cha Heung-bong, the former Minister of Health and Welfare who proposed the free fare policy around 1980 and is now in his 80s, said many older South Koreans live on limited incomes because the national pension system was not instituted until the late 1980s. About 4 in 10 South Koreans over the age of 65 live in poverty, twice as many as in Japan or the United States, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Lee stopped working in interior design two decades ago when she failed to learn how to use a computer. He then accepted a job as a night guard at a school, where he worked for eight years, until the institution told him he was too old for that, he said.
“You can’t keep up with the young people anymore,” he said.
With the metro system in deficit for years, politicians constantly consider eliminating free fares or raising the qualifying age. The mayor of Seoul, Oh Se-hoon, noted on a panel in February that less than 4 percent of the city was over 65 when the policy was adopted decades ago; now that age group represents more than 17 percent.
“Do older people grow old because they want to?” Kim Ho-il, president of the Korean Senior Citizens Association and a retired lawmaker, said at the forum. “The passing of the years pushed us into old age.”
“Why are they trying to eliminate this happiness?” he asked, claiming that the country was saving more on health care by keeping older adults active.
Around 4 pm on the day of his walk, Lee was already on his way home. Looking around the subway car, which appeared to be at least 50 percent occupied by seniors, he said he agreed that the age for free tickets should probably be raised.
“People who are 70 and 75 years old are young,” he said. “Those who are 65 years old are basically children.”
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