What we miss out on just to arrive sooner

COUNTRY ROADS: Freeways and expressways are taking the colour out of driving through the country.
COUNTRY ROADS: Freeways and expressways are taking the colour out of driving through the country.

A LONG, winding road is a wonderful thing.

Drive from Newcastle to Mudgee and you experience the pleasure of what a good engine does to distance as it feeds power to rubber-shod wheels clinging to a thinnish strip of asphalt running through cuttings and up hills through the Goulburn Ranges.

There are many things you do when you travel such a road. You see forest, farms, vineyards, horse studs and mines, and how they fit, or don't fit, together.

You slow through hamlets, villages and towns and learn about the idiosyncrasies of local places and their place in the region's hierarchy of urban centres.

You can see, too, places that struggle for survival for all sorts of reasons, including our worship of Mammon on a regular basis in the naves of drive-to shopping malls.

You learn, too, the prices of bagged horse poo, and you read other signs telling you that the local footy club needs players, that you're passing the last petrol station for 50 kilometres, and that there's stock on the road.

And for longish periods and longish distances, your road tracks other passageways through the landscape: an oxidised water pipeline, high-voltage electricity cables and a railway line given over to hauling coal.

The most elegant of scientific equations tells us that the distance you travel depends on how fast you go and how much time you spend travelling. D = S x T. Remember?

But drive a long, winding road and you see that the neatness of science becomes very messy when asphalt bumps its way through daily life.

Of course, humans have invented a way to free driving from the messiness of the world.

In Australia, we call it an expressway, or a motorway, or a freeway.

The F3 Freeway, for instance, swapped 172 kilometres of windy road for 127 kilometres of expressway.

Today, more than 50,000 vehicles each way, every day, travel the length of the F3 at reasonable and often predictable speeds.

Their drivers are spared hold-ups from roadside fruit stalls at Peats Ridge, a 60km/h zone at Ourimbah, a pile-up at Calga, and the Swansea bridge, if they've chosen that side of the lake for the journey.

Right now, workers are concreting a new passageway through the lower Hunter.

It will become the Hunter Expressway. It will mean a traveller can avoid the New England Highway between Branxton and Hexham and so be relieved of the time-sucking messiness of lower Hunter villages and towns, hills and bends, rattling bridges, black spots and trucker cafes.

An expressway transforms travel into a clean scientific relationship between distance and time, on a strip through space where motorists can drive at constant high speed across a blurred landscape; and, in the latest marque, bring their air-conditioned, surround-sound living rooms to the road.

The Hunter Expressway will link new housing estates - the peri-urban dwellers, as planners call them, in their 250-square-metre castles - to the lower Hunter's dispersed places of work; and link dispersed miners in the lower Hunter to upper Hunter open cuts.

Long-haul trucks will pass un-noticed in the night as bananas, melons and tomatoes from northern Queensland make their way to supermarket warehouses in western Sydney.

The number of road accidents and their casualties will fall. Some businesses, like petrol stations, in Maitland, Cessnock and Kurri Kurri will lose their passing trade.

And perhaps locals will also take their dollars elsewhere on the brand-new road.

At the end of this year, a representative from a new federal government will open the road.

The local Labor MP, Joel Fitzgibbon, is likely to be a disappointed man, for the expressway has been Joel's baby, a $1.7-billion infrastructure trophy for the region, but his name is unlikely to be inscribed on the bronzed plaque.

The blue ribbon will probably be cut by a Tory, and a new generation of road travellers will see the lower Hunter from over the top of crash-proof rails, with 52 kilometres of real life reduced to 40 kilometres of blurred flatness, and spend just 25 minutes of their time in pre-set comfort, with nary a pie shop, pub, a young un' about to bowl in a local cricket match, or an old bloke in a ute and a hat to impede their progress.

Instead, Hunter life will have become a blue electronic line, a known distance across an online map, a journey inside an equation, through a congested world.


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