SEOCHEON, South Korea — On a recent overcast morning, a village on South Korea’s west coast was devoid of human activity until five elderly residents emerged from the fog that shrouded lush, green rice paddies.
The group was waiting for what used to be an unaffordable luxury in this remote part of the country: a taxi to take them shopping and to doctors’ appointments in the county seat, which was 20 minutes away.
Even the poorest of them, however, could easily afford this ride. Each passenger’s share of the total fare would be measured in cents rather than dollars.
“It’s a blessing,” one of the passengers, Na Jeong-soon, 85, said.
Their village is located in Seocheon County, which is the birthplace of the Taxi of Hope, also known as the “100-won taxi.” A hundred won is approximately 9 cents.
The county was in crisis in 2013. As the population declined, so did the number of bus passengers, resulting in the cancellation of unprofitable routes. After that, bus drivers went on strike. Where there were once three buses a day, there were suddenly none, leaving those without cars stranded in remote hamlets.
What is the county’s solution? Allow people to call taxis to remote villages where there are so few people that no bus company wants to serve them. For short trips, taxis would charge passengers only 100 won, with the county government picking up the rest of the fare.
While the service is most popular with older, lower-income residents, anyone whose hamlet is more than 700 metres (2,300 feet) from the nearest bus stop can call a 100-won taxi to get to nearby markets.
The concept was so successful that, with the support of the national government in Seoul, Seocheon’s solution quickly spread to other counties, revolutionising public transportation in rural South Korea.
“The taxi now takes me all the way to my door,” Ms. Na explained. “You have no idea what it was like when I had to drag my shopping bag all the way from the bus stop to my house. It killed my legs, but no one around here helps old people like me.”
For years, South Korea has had one of the world’s lowest birthrates, resulting in a rapidly ageing population and strains in all aspects of society, from its welfare budget to public transportation to schools.
The impact of the demographic shift is most visible in thousands of rural villages where young people, including Ms. Na’s children, have moved to larger cities in search of better-paying jobs. Ms. Na’s village of Seondong, which once had as many as 25 households, now has only a dozen.
Supporting the 100-won taxi services, according to government officials, is far more cost-effective than deploying subsidised buses to the tiny hamlets tucked between mountains where few people live other than arthritic, retired farmers — and building wider roads to accommodate those buses.
Park Kyong-su, 71, said taking the 100-won taxi to the market once or twice a week relieved the monotony of life in Suranggol village, Seocheon. She watches her village of 12 houses, three of which are empty, deteriorate day by day.
“When it rained the other night, I heard part of an empty house next door cave in,” Ms. Park said, whose own home was well-kept, with farm equipment neatly hung on a wall and zinnias blooming outside her gate. “We are feeling more isolated because the pandemic has made it more difficult for our children to visit.”
Local taxi drivers have also welcomed the programme because it provides additional income.
“I probably know more about these elderly people than anyone else because I drive them twice or three times a week,” said Lee Ki-yeop, 65, a 100-won taxi driver. “I know something is wrong with them when one of them misses my taxi for a week or two.”
For Ms. Na and her friends, the taxi ride to Seocheon’s county seat, also known as Seocheon, and another town where there is a farmers’ market every five days is the only time they leave the house. They exchange news with acquaintances from other villages, such as who was taken to a nursing home and who died, in addition to picking up groceries and seeing their doctors.
Seocheon is home to two UNESCO World Heritage sites: a centuries-old practise of weaving fine fabric from ramie plants and tidal flats rich in marine life. The county, which is part of South Chungcheong Province, is also home to sogokju, which is said to be Korea’s oldest type of rice wine.
During the bird-migration seasons, tourists from all over South Korea flock to Seocheon to see flocks of longbills, mallards, and honking swans feed on its tidal flats before flying to Siberia.
However, the county was not immune to the upheaval caused by South Korea’s rapid industrialization in its rural towns. Its ramie fabric industry has declined, and the majority of South Korean clothing is now imported or made of synthetic materials. People prefer imported wine and beer to sogokju.
The county’s population has decreased from 160,000 in the 1960s to 51,000 this year, with nearly 38% of the population being 65 or older. The village’s youngest residents were a couple in their 60s, according to Ms. Na.
Seocheon, the county seat, has the appearance of a rapidly ageing community. Its orthopaedic and other medical clinics were packed with elderly patients on a recent market day.
Stooped, older passengers with shopping bags sat like a row of birds under an awning at a nearby bus and taxi stop, waiting for their buses or 100-won taxis to arrive. A county administration-deployed younger assistant in a yellow vest was busy helping them carry their bags on and off the taxis.
When Statistics Korea conducted a nationwide survey in 2010, one of the most common complaints was a lack of public transportation for older villagers in rural South Korea who did not have cars or children who could drive for them.
“It was especially difficult for the elderly to walk to the nearest bus stop when it snowed in winter or was scorching hot in summer,” said Noh Pak-rae, Seocheon’s top government official.
Last year, the 100-won taxis transported nearly 40,000 passengers from 40 villages in Seocheon. The county spent $147,000 on the programme.
Residents pay 100 won for shorter rides and up to 1,500 won (approximately $1.30) for longer rides within the county. Prior to the introduction of the 100-won taxi, the same taxi ride cost between 10,000 and 25,000 won.
According to government data, more than 2.7 million passengers used similar taxi services in rural South Korea last year, with some offering the service to pregnant women as well. According to a government survey, people in remote villages have travelled outside twice as much since the introduction of the 100-won taxi.
Ms. Na’s friend Hong Seok-soon, 77, is a widow in Seondong village who has lived alone since her three children left. She was beaming as she carried a shopping bag full of fish and crabs from the market on a recent day. She’d even bought herself a new pair of pants.
When asked why she was out shopping, she replied, “My son is coming to visit this weekend!”