Imagine yourself exiting the subway station to meet your friend. Suddenly you notice it is raining and realize you don’t have an umbrella. As you walk to the nearby convenient store to buy an umbrella, you see ‘Umbrella Rental’ and directions to an office. Excitedly, you ask the staff employee for an umbrella. However, the individual responses with “Sorry, we’re all out.” You look at the umbrella stand that should contain umbrellas. It is empty. You might wonder, “What had happened to all the umbrellas?” Unfortunately, a majority of them were likely lost by those who borrowed one and some might have just never been returned. Although the umbrellas are public property, people do not seem to care. Do the empty ‘Conscience’ umbrella stands mean that people are losing their conscience?
To Enhance Citizens’ lives
Since 1996 subways in various cities have started to operate the Umbrella Renting System for citizens in cases of unexpected sudden rainfalls. Currently in Seoul, from Lines 1 to 4 which are managed by Seoul Metro, 16 out of 120 stations provide citizens with opportunities to borrow umbrellas. After requesting an umbrella, the renter needs to leave his/her name and phone number and present his/her ID card in order to borrow one.1 The utilization rate is exponential during rain. An employee at Konkuk University Station said, “Sometimes, the stand empties within ten minutes.” Private industries and stores are now also adopting as similar umbrella renting system as well. Moreover, subway stations are expanding their rental services to include books. Specifically, there are small libraries owned by certain subway stations that are filled with donated books from citizens and industries. In total, there are fifteen libraries on the nine lines including Nowon, Hyehwa and City Hall stations.2 The books are there for citizens to read and can be borrowed. The hope is to provide citizens with a cultural space while commuting. From the elderly to children, the libraries are constantly utilized by citizens.
Can’t Go Home
While the reasons for creating such facilities are good and well-suited to the community, citizens are not making proper use of them. Specifically, books and umbrellas are not being returned to subway stations. Some stations are even shutting down their umbrella renting system due to this irresponsibility by citizens. In the case of Wangsimni station, only fifteen out of 60 umbrellas were returned. Likewise, the libraries now have empty shelves as citizens do not return the borrowed books. At City Hall Station, 9 of out 10 books are not returned.3 One employee responsible for supervising the library said, “It is not easy to replenish the shelves because the books are simply taken by so many people. Also, we are running out of replacement books as well.”
To understand the phenomenon, it is necessary to investigate the reason why items are not returned by people who borrowed them. The main reason is citizens’ unethical thought: “It is not mine.” Psychologically, people are protective of their property. However, if an object belongs to someone else, especially if it has no specific owner, the object is likely to be abused. Such a mindset is what makes objects lost and forgotten. Also the idea that ‘It is okay because I am not the only one not returning the item’ is also prevalent. The two thoughts are what have led to the shutting down of the renting systems.
In addition, supervision of the rented objects has been proven to be inefficient. To borrow either a book or an umbrella, an individual must merely fill out a form requesting one’s name and phone number. However, employees are unable to verify the information. In addition, the only way to return the object is by re-visiting the same station. “The further one’s destination, the more unlikely people are to return items,” said an employee at Hyehwa station. Inefficiency has also led to an increase in unreturned items as people fell irritated to have to return to the same station.
Public Asset = Your Asset
To encourage more people to return borrowed public assets, the government should start a ‘Rent and Return’ program. Moreover, educating citizens through campaigns at subway stations is required. Stations such as Mia, Miasamgeori and Suyu operate a different type of library called the U-Library. It provides citizens custom-ordered books from local libraries. The machine stores the books until they are accessed via an individual key card, containing the citizen’s personal identification information. Also, the books have RFID* chips inside them, which makes it easy to track whether it has been returned or not. This system makes people more conscious of the necessity to return public property. Rather than occasional criticism through media, frequent campaigning and education by subway companies is required. Most importantly, the government must remind people that public assets are personal property, which would revive Conscience Renting.
1 Park Yojin, “Searching for Missing Conscience Washed by Monsoons,” Kukmin Ilbo, July 25, 2013
2 Kim Sangsun, “Where are the 5000 Books Subway Libraries without Books,” Joongang Ilbo, May 7, 2013
3 Kim Garim, “Street Libraries in the Danger of Being Demolished, due Lack of Returning Books,” KBS NEWS, June 10, 2013
* RFID is abbreviation of Radio Frequency Identification that means a technology that uses tiny computer chips to track items.