Seoul's Answer to a Pollution Crisis: Free Public Transit - CityLab

When it comes to air pollution, China gets most of the attention as one of Asia’s worst offenders (and rightly so). But South Korea has a massive pollution problem all its own, earning the unenviable title of worst air quality among OECD nations—and experts predict the problem will only get worse over the next five years.

So when a thick layer of yellow dust settled over the city last week, local leaders took a drastic step to confront it: declaring an air quality emergency and, for the first time ever, giving commuters free rides on public transit.

During the morning and evening rush hours last Monday, the city waived subway and bus fees as the level of “fine dust” started out at 79 micrograms per cubic meter (considered “moderate” on the air quality index). They were waived again on Wednesday and Thursday as concentrations alarmingly reached 157, which falls well into the “unhealthy” zone. In addition, the city also shut down 360 parking lots at government buildings and implemented an alternate-day driving system for public employees.

It’s all part of an emergency measure implemented last July when the city’s concentration of fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) reached a shocking 179 micrograms per cubic meter. Not surprisingly, the city has gotten praise for being the first in the country to enact such bold moves, but it isn’t without political controversy.

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