‘It’s a Godsend’: 9-Cent Taxi Rides in Rural South Korea

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

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

But even the poorest amongst them might simply afford this journey. Each passenger’s share of the whole fare can be measured not in {dollars} however in cents.

“It’s a godsend,” mentioned 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.

Back 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. Where as soon as there had been three buses a day, immediately 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.

While 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 once 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 way to my doorstep,” Ms. Na mentioned. “You can’t imagine what it was like in older days when I had to haul my shopping bag all the way from the bus stop to my place. It killed my legs, but there is no one around here to help old folks like me.”

For years, South Korea has reported one of many lowest birthrates on the earth, making a fast-aging inhabitants and inflicting strains in all facets of society from its welfare funds to public transportation to colleges.

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

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

Park Kyong-su, 71, mentioned going to the market a couple of times every week by the 100-won taxi broke the tedium of residing in Suranggol village in Seocheon. She sees her village of 12 homes, three of them empty, decay daily.

“When it rained the other night, I heard part of an empty house next door caving in,” mentioned Ms. Park, whose own residence was well-kept, with farm gear hanging neatly on a wall and zinnias blossoming outdoors her gate. “We feel more isolated as the pandemic made it more difficult for our children to visit.”

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

“I probably know more about these old folks than anyone else because I drive them two or three times a week,” mentioned Lee Ki-yeop, 65, a 100-won taxi driver. “When one of them misses my taxi for a week or two, I know that there is something wrong with them.”

For Ms. Na and her associates, the taxi journey to Seocheon’s county seat, also called Seocheon — and to a different city the place there’s a farmers’ market each 5 days — is nearly the one time they enterprise out. In addition to selecting up groceries and seeing their medical doctors, they change information with acquaintances from different villagers, like who was taken to a nursing dwelling and who died.

Seocheon boasts two UNESCO World Heritage points of interest — a centuries-old apply of weaving nice material from ramie crops, and its tidal flats teeming with marine life. Part of South Chungcheong Province, the county can also be dwelling to sogokju, mentioned to be the oldest kind of rice wine in Korea.

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

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

The county’s inhabitants shrank from 160,000 within the Nineteen Sixties to 51,000 this yr, practically 38 p.c of them 65 or older. In Ms. Na’s village, the youngest residents have been a pair of their 60s.

Seocheon, the county seat, has all of the seems of a fast-aging neighborhood. During a latest market day, its orthopedic and different medical clinics have been jammed with aged sufferers.

At the close by bus and taxi cease, stooped, older passengers with buying 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 luggage on and off the taxis.

When Statistics Korea carried out a nationwide survey in 2010, an absence of public transportation was one of many largest grievances for older villagers in rural South Korea who had neither vehicles nor kids who might drive for them.

“It was especially difficult for old people to walk to the nearest bus stop when it snowed in winter or was scorching hot in summer,” mentioned Noh Pak-rae, the highest authorities official in Seocheon.

The 100-won taxis carried practically 40,000 passengers from 40 villages in Seocheon final yr. The program price the county $147,000.

Residents pay 100 gained for shorter rides, and as much as 1,500 gained, about $1.30, for longer journeys inside the county. Before the 100-won taxi was launched, the identical taxi rides price between 10,000 to 25,000 gained.

More than 2.7 million passengers used related taxi companies in rural South Korea final yr, in keeping with authorities information, some deploying the service for pregnant ladies as effectively. Since the 100-won taxi was launched, individuals in distant villages have traveled outdoors twice as usually, in keeping with a authorities survey.

One of Ms. Na’s associates, Hong Seok-soon, 77, is a widow in Seondong village who lived alone after her three kids moved away. On a latest day, she was all smiles as she carried a buying bag filled with fish and crabs from the market. She had even handled herself to a brand new pair of pants.

When requested what the buying was for, she mentioned, “My son is coming for a visit this weekend!”

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