Driving in Seoul, Korea with a Toddler

When we found out we were moving to Korea I started to talk to.everyone.we.knew. I ended up finding so many people who had lived in Seoul or Korea before. Almost all of them said the driving in Seoul was crazy and that we would either have to hire a driver or solely use the public transportation system. I was nervous to say the least. Then we moved here and although I'm a huge fan of the subway system there are times, with a little one, that I just need to get there and back. Since hiring a driver seemed a little extreme since I enjoy my independence, I decided to try it out myself before I made any final decisions. I'm extremely thankful I did because, although there is a learning curve, driving in Seoul is completely feasible. Yes, the crazy things people tell you about traffic, and buses, are true. That doesn't mean you can't do it though! Just knowing what to expect is half the battle. In the age of GPS things are so much easier than when SCS Daddy and I lived in Japan trying to navigate with a handwritten map someone gave us on a napkin! Technology, gotta love it!

Here is a list of all the frustrating points of driving in Seoul and how we survive. Unlike my blog about the subway stories not being true: driving in Seoul stories, those are true! If you aren't in Seoul yet, take a deep breath, all of these things can be overcome!

If we plan on going somewhere after 4pm on the weekdays or anytime on the weekends we STRONGLY consider taking public transportation. (Even though the subway is packed as well, at least we're guaranteed to move.) If we really want to drive somewhere in Seoul on the weekends we try to leave the house by 9am. I've found that Seoulits don't get moving until around 10am. Most stores and places don't open before 10 but at least we get stress-free driving and parking if we get there early. Public holidays are also another time we consider taking public transportation. There are times a 20min drive has taken me 2 hours. As long as Sam has entertainment and snacks and I have some interesting podcasts to listen to, it's not so bad. I've quickly discovered, getting worked up about it just stresses me out. When I hit traffic I just give in, get comfy, and let SCS Daddy know we'll be late for dinner.

One thing that absolutely drives me nuts about driving in Seoul is parking. As a mom I need space to maneuver out of the car. If I'm lucky, usually at large department stores, there are pink outlined parking spots called mother parking.
The upside to these spots is the extra space. By American standards the spot is a smaller than average parking spot. By Seoul standards, the spot is HUGE. I can even manage to open my door wide enough to pull Sam out of the car without hitting either of our heads in the process. Another benefit is location, mother spots are usually located near the entrance. The down side of this is double parking. Seoulites will leave their car double parked, in neutral. If I park in a mother spot it is almost guaranteed that I will be doing this at the end of our visit:

Two sides of double parked cars.
When I don't park in mother parking I end up with such little room to get out of the car I have to take Sam out of the backseat, while still sitting in the front. Then I "open" (more like crack) the door, squeeze her out and hold her hand while I shimmy sideways out of the car. Thankfully Sam is old enough now to stand and wait for me to get out. Before she was walking, I dreaded this parking dance. I was even known to temporarily park my car outside the spot, get her out and situated into her stroller, and then park.

I find the subway easy to navigate but a place I'm constantly getting lost is the underground parking garages in Seoul. Since there are countless entrance and exit locations I have a hard time remembering where I parked. In a few department stores there are actually machines dedicated just to this. If you type in your license plate number (hint: memorize that as soon as you get situated) the machine will tell you exactly where your car is. Since these machines are not always available or when they are sometimes my lack of language skills makes them difficult to use, I always take a picture of my parking location number as I lock up. That way when I'm looking for my car at least I have a digital reminder, not to mention something I can show a parking attendant, when I can't find my car.
"Just call me." Since parking is an ever growing problem in Seoul people have taken to leaving their phone numbers on the dash of their cars. This is such a popular trend that the phone number signs come in all forms of cuteness. The dollar stores here even sell kits for the crafty among us to cross-stitch a phone number sign. At first I was weary of leaving my phone number so exposed. After much coaxing I gave in and it's honestly saved me from a tow a few times. I may not always understand the caller but at least I know if I've parked in a questionable space and then get a call from someone I can't understand, it's time to go check on the car.  

GPS (Navigation System):
Although getting used to our new AVOL GPS took some time it was well worth the purchase. It is completely in English and even finds Korean addresses with English input. For a good tutorial on the AVOL GPS check out this nifty video on YouTube. At the very least I know even if I take 97 wrong turns, our GPS will "recalculate" for me.

Driving Obstacles
The sight of a little old man pushing a giant  hand cart, overflowing with cardboard boxes, and walking against traffic, is a completely normal sight here in Seoul.
Print and Coloring Hand Cart Image
Photo Credit: http://www.4to40.com
 At least they are walking on the side of the road. 3 sights, in the middle of the road, that instantly cause me to perk up and drive cautiously are buses, taxis, and motorcycles. I don't think anything describes buses, taxis, and motorcyles here in Seoul other than, "Bat Out of Hell!". Buses tend to just start moving when merging between lanes. If a bus is coming I simply do everything possible to get out of the way. When our family first arrived to Seoul we took a multitude of taxis getting from place to place. On one of our trips the taxi didn't yield to the bus merging into our lane and was hit. Neither of the drivers seemed to take notice and the both continued on their way. Taxis are working against the clock so, like most major cities, they are in a hurry and it can be assumed everyone else is in their way. I always leave plenty of space between myself and the driver in front of me, this drives cabs insane. They honk, they flash lights, they tailgate, they risk life and limp to swerve around me and speed up .... all of 10 feet. Motorcycles are usually delivery men in a hurry. I love the fact that I can get fried chicken delivered to me in the middle of the park 24/7 so I just the motorcycles do their thing. By watching them most people would assume laws, and traffic signs do not apply to them. Most don't even bother with a helmet.

Electric fly swatter anyone? Shopping in Seoul is always interesting. The fact that I can buy a multitude of items on the side of the road is more obnoxious than fun.
Sellers set up in high traffic areas usually by a light and set up shop. They have signs and display models. Food carts in the middle of heavy traffic bother me less. Mostly because I enjoy snacking on yummy Korean food while I'm stuck in traffic.

Then there is the obstacle of illegally parked or stopped vehicles. Since parking is so difficult in Seoul the issue of illegally parked and stopped cars tends to impede traffic. If a delivery person would like to make a quick stop and drop off a box, they end up blocking the entire lane of traffic, causing everyone in that lane to try and merge into the next lane. Then before long, gridlock.

I usually don't curse but while driving in Seoul there are days when I have to usher all my self control to not expose Sam to the vocabulary of a sailor. Even though I complain, a lot, about driving in Seoul, if I truly hated it I would take the subway more often. There are so many perks to driving once kids are involved that I've come to tolerate the driving situation here in Seoul.

Legal NotesIf you're interested in getting a license to drive in Korea and are not here with the military check out more information on the Embassy website. If you're here with the military check out Yongsan's Garrison website. For a list of all Korean road signs check out page 29 of the Morning Calm welcome guide. To this day I'm not 100% sure if there are real laws about car seats in Korea. Even if there are most people are very relaxed in following them. Children can be seen everywhere in the front seat of the car in the arms of a parent. Toddlers are often spotted jumping around relatives in the back seat. Legal or not, I highly suggest putting a little one in a car seat here in Seoul. Just for the fact that I have to share the roads with cabs, Sam will always be securely fastened in the middle of the back seat. 

Emergency Preparedness
I feel as though I write, "Better safe than sorry." on so many of my posts. Part of that stems from my father teaching me at a young age that you can always do something to help yourself. I recognize my weaknesses, and language acquisition would fall into that category. Knowing this I can still help my family and myself even in a foreign country. Here are a few things I do to prepare us for any emergencies while driving. 

First I printed off this handy Driver's Assistance Request form from the Garrison website and then put a copy on my phone as well.  

I make sure we have well stocked emergency kits in the car. If I ever need to leave the car I have a way to carry Sam and extra clothes for bad weather. If I ever need to fix or stay in the car I have everything I need to stabilize us until I can get help including food and water. I also make a little non emergency kit for myself. It has wet wipes, chap stick, sunscreen, and yes a mini disposable toilet. We are potty training, you never know.

I also ensure ICE, in case of emergency, information is easily visible on each seat. I translated each ICE item in Korean. Sam even has her own attached to her carseat. If I ever need the help of others at the very least I know I made it as easy as I could for the other person.

* Anything else to add about driving in Korea with kids? Add it to the comments section below!

Want more updates? Follow us on Instagram!