Cycling in Seoul is not for the faint of heart unless the intention is to stick to the cycling paths along the Han River and various streams that branch off from it, and even then it can be rather intimidating. So here is an overview of cycling in the city.
Because Seoul is so compact and has such a large population, it is nearly impossible to ever be alone. Wherever you go and at whatever time, there are always others around. As such, cycling in Seoul requires the ability to navigate and cope with large amounts of traffic. And it is because of the traffic in the city that most cycling occurs along the Han River and its streams. However, that does not mean the city streets aren’t navigable. So here is what you should know.
The paths along the Han are incredible. If you’re a serious cyclist you might find them a bit dull, as they are flat and endless and straight, but if you’re new to the sport or a more casual rider they are great. There are plenty of bridges throughout the city so it’s always easy to cross from the south to the north bank, which makes Han River loops convenient. Personally, I view the Han as a highway for cyclists. It’s a way to get quickly from one part of the city to another, and that’s why I appreciate river routes. It’s great for commuting and it’s great for getting to the starting points of off-river routes.
However, as I mentioned above, even the Han can be intimidating for inexperienced cyclists. The reason is that it is prone to heavy bicycle and pedestrian traffic, especially in certain spots. On the north bank the busiest area is in the northwestern part of the city near World Cup Stadium. This area has public swimming pools, playgrounds, picnic and camping areas, soccer and baseball fields, and convenience stores. On the south bank the area around Yeouido is always busy, as are the areas near Gangnam, especially near Banpo/Jamsu Bridges. Further east toward Jamsil is also prone to overcrowding. Most of the crowding in these areas is by pedestrians. There are a lot of couples, groups of young people, and families enjoying the park in these areas, and they tend to be a bit negligent of cyclists. They walk in the bike lanes and cross them without looking, so it’s important to be aware and keep your eyes peeled.
Cycling traffic can also be problematic if your goal is to bang out hard for some TT style riding. The river is home to many casual cyclists and inexperienced riders on city rental bikes. The scariest of these are couples on tandem bikes riding around taking selfies. Once off the Han River and onto its streams the paths tend to be even narrower, so even more caution should be shown here. But don’t misunderstand and think that it’s gridlock all the time. It depends on the day of the week and the time of day and the location. And as long as you’re a skilled rider who calls out to those in front of you, you can carry a fairly fast pace through the city. And if you take the river to the outer parts of the city the paths will be pretty open and you can ride freely.
Seoul’s infrastructure wasn’t built with bicycle traffic in mind. Only recently, since about five years ago when cycling became a popular hobby, has the city started to take cyclists into account. Bicycle logos have been painted in the right lanes of most roads, indicating that it’s a lane made for bicycles, but that’s not really the case. It’s a lane for cars and it’s generally full of cars. Driver’s will honk their horns if you’re too slow. They will pass by frighteningly close. They will cut you off. But if you ride fast enough and aggressively enough cars tend to keep their distance.
In some parts of the city, specifically in Gwanghwamun, Jongno, and around Gyeongbok Palace, there are dedicated cycling lanes painted red and separated from traffic. There are other similar areas at random other parts of the city as well. However, it is quite common for cars to be parked in these lanes and to cut across them without concern for cyclists when drivers make right hand turns. So even when in a dedicated cycling lane, be wary.
Beyond the streets themselves, there are certain types of drivers to be especially cautious of. The most dangerous are bus drivers. Bus drivers will ride a cyclist into the curb in order to get to its stop. Bus drivers will rush ahead of a cyclist, quickly pull in front and slam on the brakes to make a stop. So when buses are around watch out for approaching bus stops. Taxi drivers are a close second to bus drivers in terms of danger to cyclists. Taxis will cut off any cyclist at any time to pick up or drop off a fare, and when they pull out into traffic they don’t seem to check mirrors often, and if they do, they don’t wait for cyclists to pass by. As far as regular drivers, watch out for those who drive luxury cars and those who drive small compact cars. Luxury car drivers just don’t give a f*** because they’re beyond the concerns of others and think they own the roads. Small car drivers tend to be inexperienced and make terrible decisions.
But that doesn’t mean the city streets are guaranteed death or injury. With experience and caution you can learn to navigate them just fine. Ironically, the more aggressive you are the safer the streets tend to be because aggressive riding terrifies car drivers and forces them to be cautious of you. But even if you’re not an aggressive rider, you can still navigate the streets safely. In fact, as a former coordinator of the now defunct Bike Party Seoul, I have led rides of over fifty riders of varying abilities through some of the busiest parts of the city without incident.
In the end the best riding in Seoul is in the satellite cities, nearly all of them reachable by the Han River or its streams. Northwest of the city in Gyeonggi Province are several good hills and courses that go through forests and pass by lakes. The streets there can be heavily trafficked on holidays but are mostly quite open. Southeast are Hanam, Gwangju, and Seongnam. These areas are less hilly, but still have some good hills including NHSS and the rolling Bunwonli area. Weekends and holidays they are busy, but weekdays and early mornings these are great areas for riding. And east of the city is Yangpyeong, which is probably the best cycling near Seoul with roads that aren’t overly busy even on holidays and weekends, and have a plethora of good hills and mountains. Plus, Yangpyeong is accessible by the Gyeongui-Jungang train line, which allows for bicycles on weekends. Or, if you’re keen for an all day ride, take the Han River out and back.