Suwon mayor: ‘We are changing the paradigm that the car is a symbol of progress’

Yeom Tae-young, the mayor of Suwon, South Korea, says cities should reclaim streets for pedestrians and bicyclists. (Anna Valmero)

SUWON, South Korea — Two years ago, a neighborhood in Suwon called Haenggung-dong went car-free for a month. The experience and legacy of that pilot project is the subject of this week’s Citiscope innovation feature.

The biggest local backer of Suwon’s experiment was Mayor Yeom Tae-young. An environmental activist before he became mayor, Yeom was elected in 2010 promising to slash the city’s carbon emissions. Creating the “ecomobility village” in Haenggung-dong was one of the city’s most ambitious tools for doing that.

I sat down with Yeom recently to find out what Suwon had learned from its experiment with ditching cars and what legacy it has produced in the city.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Anna Valmero: Why was Haenggung-dong chosen as the area to try Suwon’s experiment with going car-free, and how did it come about?

Mayor Yeom Tae-young: Haenggung-dong has a rich history that symbolizes the country’s rapid economic growth and development while staying grounded in its roots. It houses the Hwaseong Fortress, a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site.

With economic growth came the modernization of residential areas in Suwon city. Development of Haenggung-dong, however, lagged behind other parts of the city because there are limits and restrictions under the UNESCO guidelines.

Former residents of the village, mostly wealthy families and businessmen, moved out to modern city apartments. This left the area underdeveloped and almost in a shanty state, with poorer families now composing most of the population. This presented a challenge for the Suwon city government for decades.

The 2013 EcoMobility World Festival presented an opportunity to address this challenge. Through the festival, we wanted to regenerate, revive and renew the Haenggung-dong neighborhood — to restore its former beauty and glory in order to spur economic development and a better life for the people living in the area.

To achieve this, the city made a three-pronged roadmap that included investment in physical infrastructure to encourage the use of greener transport schemes; community engagement for participatory development; and continuous exchange of knowledge and best practices with local and international partners, to share lessons and common challenges.

As part of this goal, the city government invested in the road infrastructure, as well as improving the façades of stores and houses. Power and utility cables were also buried underground to make wider sidewalks and to let bikers and pedestrians enjoy more of the streets. To encourage reduced driving speeds, the roads were designed to meander along the renovated shops and buildings, while road humps were introduced on straight roads for traffic calming.

Investing in the physical infrastructure was key to the project to show that the project is long-term and will be continued long after the festival. The city invested $US10.5 million, with two-thirds allocated for the village infrastructure.

Q: What has happened in the two years since the EcoMobility World Festival?

A: The festival was a successful demonstration of how people can navigate the neighborhood on foot, and give up private cars in favor of greener modes of transport such as walking, cycling and carpooling, among others.

Initially, the shop owners did not like the idea because they thought it would limit their customers. But they were glad to find that when the streets were car-free, more people walked in the shops and it helped the local economy. The local shop owners themselves have observed this even two years after the festival.

Furthermore, older citizens in wheelchairs and young kids are able to go out in the streets without fear for their safety, unlike before when cars would speed by in the neighborhood.

Nonetheless, cars gradually entered the neighborhood the day after the festival ended. This does not deter us from our end goal, which is to establish a 100-percent ecomobility village  three to four years from now. The festival was an important stepping-stone.

In terms of progress, the city is proud to have tapped citizen volunteers for the conduct of the festival. They have played an important role leading the community in continuing the program.

For example, local community leaders have started car-free Saturdays in Gongbang Street and other parts of the neighborhood. This allowed families, especially those with children and elderly members, to enjoy a leisurely walk in what used to be busy streets filled with speeding cars before the festival. By next year, there is a plan to hold this car-free on two weekends every month until we fully transition to holding it every week.

While we cannot change a city to become ecomobile in just a month, we have produced lessons that other cities and countries are looking to learn from.

Q: What are those lessons?

A: The core formula we followed is simple: Identify a goal that will promote sustainable growth; involve the community in developing the project; and take the concept into action by building the necessary infrastructure and networks.

Our goal was clear: We wanted to curb our carbon emissions by reducing our carbon footprint from cars. When we identified the Haenggung-dong village as the pilot village, we knew there must be a balance of maintaining the cultural and historical aspects of the place while introducing projects that will enhance and support the city’s competitiveness.

Communication with the community is important. When introducing a new concept such as ecomobility, or any change in practice and perception, you will always encounter opposition and conflict. This is why it is important to have open channels to discuss the project with the community at the early stages so they can judge the project based on its merits. This is an important step to also let community leaders emerge and claim ownership of the project.

Next, a city leader must take a concept to action. For the car-free village, we wanted people to experience it instead of just inviting people to attend the conference and talks. To show people that we were serious about reviving the sleepy old village, we built and invested in the infrastructure. When you build something tangible, it makes a mark on the citizens. They see it.

Q: What is going on to sustain the project?

A: There are multiple ecomobility projects being implemented in the city, together with the ongoing citizens’ engagement in the pilot village.

The project had an impact in crafting local ordinances. For example, in the ecomobility village, citizens lobbied for the passage of a 30 kilometers-per-hour speed limit for cars entering the neighborhood. Originally, they lobbied for a 20 kilometers-per-hour limit. But under Korean national law, a vehicle’s speed limit should be no less than 30 kilometers-per-hour.

Citizens also embarked on their own to promote the car-free Saturdays.

Since 2013, Suwon has become a learning hub on local governance and ecomobility. Leaders from other Korean cities and even those from China, Germany and others have been communicating with us to learn the lessons and apply it in their local context.

Furthermore, the national government is looking at Suwon as a case study for developing future cities and to help curb carbon emissions.

Outside the ecomobility village, Suwon city government will also finance the acquisition of 6,000 new top-of-the-line bikes as part of the expansion of the public bike system.

The bikes will have chips to help record the distance they run and the corresponding rental fee. The bikes will be hooked to a central computer to help us identify where to best locate them at specific hours of the day to best meet the demand. A pilot is being implemented in one of the mountain trails within the city.

Q: The 2015 EcoMobility World Festival is now happening in South Africa. Why is it important for Asia, Africa and emerging economies to adopt green transport solutions in pursuing growth?

A: With the Paris climate talks in December, the world is waiting for global leaders to have a progressive climate deal. The rapid warming of the planet due to high carbon emissions is a problem that all countries must address, especially cities in emerging economies in Asia and Africa that will continue to increase their energy demands.

Nonetheless, cities can also implement programs on their own based on the local context for implementation and the resources available to achieve sustainable growth. In the case of Suwon, promoting green urban transport through ecomobility is a framework that addresses environmental concerns while also promoting better quality of life for citizens.

In the ecomobility village experiment, we are changing the paradigm that the car is a symbol of progress in urban transport. We want to promote the mixed use of roads and return the streets to pedestrians. When we do so, we reclaim the streets from cars and we also give more rights and access for mobility to vulnerable groups such as persons with disabilities, the elderly and children.


After hosting ‘ecomobility’ festival, cars are back but less loved in Suwon

Suwon mayor: ‘We are changing the paradigm that the car is a symbol of progress’

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Anna Valmero is a freelance journalist covering stories related to the environment, climate change, urban innovations and women in the Philippines and Asia. Full bio

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