Older adults elect to pay for their subway rides

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Older adults elect to pay for their subway rides

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Ever since Jeong Bong-jin turned 65 in February of last year, he has been eligible for free subway fares in Korea. Though he initially took advantage of this, he began to harbor misgivings.

“I’m thankful for the policy,” he says, “but I felt sorry whenever I heard that this caused a current account deficit for subway operators. I frequently thought ‘This isn’t right,’ especially when I saw there were more senior straphangers riding for free than regular passengers on the Shinbundang or Gyeonggang lines.”

Jeong saved about 30,000 won ($26) monthly in transit fares.

“I don’t really have a need to ride the subway for free since I have the financial means to do so,” Jeong says. “I want to either pay to ride or collect that amount to do some good.”

Former Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik, 68, also pays to ride - and advises those close to him to do the same.

“I didn’t make the [senior subway] card itself to ride the subway for free,” Kim said. “I told my friends and acquaintances who had the financial means to pay whenever I had the opportunity and recently, the number of people who tell me that they voluntarily pay has grown.”

Recently, this trend has begun to grow.

“It’s great that the move is spreading,” said Lee Shim, 78, the president of the Korean Senior Citizens Association. “Yet it has to happen voluntarily so people don’t end up arguing over who has and doesn’t have the means to pay.”

This is part of a larger change in attitude concerning not only what older adults are capable of doing, but who should be considered one.

In 2015, for example, the Korean Senior Citizens Association called for the official age that qualifies one as a senior to be changed from 65 to 70.

“In the past it was understandable for 65-years-olds to be treated as older adults, but they’re not now that their health has improved,” said Kim Il-soon, 80, the president of the Korea Golden Age Forum, a non-profit organization that aims to help Korea adjust to being an aging society. “Though labor pains may arise because we are quickly becoming more of an aging society, the official age for a senior must be raised to 75.”

The proportion of seniors in Korea rose from 10.2 percent in 2008 to 13.7 percent this year.

According to the National Statistics Office, the population of those above 65 was 6.5 million people in 2015, or 12.8 percent of the population, and will be 18.18 million, or 35.6 percent, by 2045.

Consequently, the number of those taking advantage of free fares in Seoul increased from 176.55 million in 2012 to 231.4 million this year. There were 412 million free rides across the country’s seven urban railway systems in 2016, out of 2.45 billion total.

The institutions that operate the urban railways in seven cities have subsequently suffered losses of 538.1 billion won ($481.59) and long-term costs of 841.8 billion won are expected.

“If the central government covers the costs borne by seniors’ free fares, the subway operating corporation’s financial condition will be better and we can invest more into safety facilities and reduce the pressure for price hikes,” said Kim Tae-ho, the CEO of the new Seoul Metro, a merger of the Seoul Metro (1-4 lines) Seoul Metropolitan Rapid Transit Corporation (5-8 lines).

However, though the central government bears the burden for the construction of urban railways through the Ministry of Strategy and Finance, the operational expenses must be covered by local governments.

“Seniors who use the subway are the underprivileged for the most part,” said Kim Jin-soo, professor of social welfare at Yonsei University. “Because free rides for these seniors are not only a form of material but also mental welfare, it must be maintained as it is now.”

“We need to establish a fare reduction system with corresponding discounts for seniors above 65,” said Woo Jeong-uk, professor of railway logistics management at Korea National University of Transportation, “similar to the fare reductions for children or adolescents.”

Germany and Luxembourg are two examples of countries that employ fare reductions in lieu of free fares.

BY HAM JONG-SUN [hwang.hosub@joongang.co.kr]

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