The Curious case of the 1 meter highway

"Beauty is and always will be blue skies and open highway" - Dave Hickey

Who of us doesn't have a great memory of a road trip! Whether from our childhood, when our parents were driving us to the beach during summer holidays, or with our friends and loved ones, singing out loud to our playlist on a cassette tapes or CDs. I remember being on a desert road behind my father driving us in his Fiat 128 back in the very early 1990s, from Cairo to Alexandria. Since that early memory till this day, driving on a road trip is my favorite way to travel.

From the early ages, roads have been crucial element in any civilizations history. From the first paved road built by the Ancient Egyptians 4,600 years ago, to the Romans connecting their empire by building roads, where the phrase 'All roads lead to Rome' came from, roads make a crucial contribution contribution to our economic development & growth, helping nations grow and develop. In addition, providing access to employment, social, health and education services makes a road network crucial in fighting against poverty.

Connecting Europe

In 1958, the German transport minister Hans-Christoph Seebohm wrote a short note for the French journal Transmondia on the role of transport in European unification. History, Seebohm claimed, had demonstrated that transport was a helpful tool in bringing about national unification. He predicted that Europe could count on the collaboration of transport in similar ways.

In the 1920s and 1930s, many European nations began investing heavily in progressively more modern highway systems to spur commerce and bolster national defense. Italy was the first country in the world to build such modern roads, the first one being the "Autostrada dei Laghi" (Autostrada of the Lakes), from Milan to Varese, built in 1921 and finished in 1924. The Netherlands were second in line, in 1937 the Rijksweg 12 (still in use today) connecting Voorburg with Zoetermeer was the first road in the world to be equipped with emergency lanes. Germany started building Autobahnen in the 1940s for military as well as economic purposes.

In the V&A world's leading museum of art and design, you can find a visualization that reveals the history and growth of motorways across Europe over a period of a hundred years, and it provides additional information on the political, economical and cultural context of their development.

Across the 28 members of the EU, there were 78,000 km of motorway in 2019, up from 42,176 km in 1990. The longest international European motorway, the E40, has an impressive length of 8,499 kilometers and it flows between France and Kazakhstan. And while the Netherlands has the best road network in Europe and the second best in the world after Singapore, many countries in Europe have no motorways at all, such as Malta & Montenegro. Yet one country in Europe, with almost the size of the united Kingdom, has less than 1% of motorway network than UK, that country is Romania.

The Curious case of the 1 Meter Highway

Can you imagine driving on a stretch of single-lane carriageway, where a 700 kilometers trip that can normally takes around 4 to 5 hours in at least 11 hours with good traffic. That's apparently the life of drivers in Romania. Romania has 912 kilometers of highways, and in 2017, Romania recorded 98 deaths per million inhabitants due to road accidents, double the EU average and more than three times that of the UK. According to the World Economic Forum, still has the worst infrastructure of any EU state almost 13 years after joining the bloc.

As I travel to Romania a lot, especially the Moldova region, I have witnessed firsthand how the lack of highways can be challenging and even dangerous. And one night, my girlfriend chose to watch a documentary on Netflix called 30 years & 15 minutes, and I've to be honest, it took me by surprise.

A businessman from the city of Suceava in Romania, explores the reasons behind the lack of highways in Romania and its impact on Romania and on him as a person. And the impact is mostly heartbreaking. This Businessman, Ștefan Mandachi, decided to act after years of frustration with the government's failure to improve basic infrastructure in the country during the 30 years since the revolution which brought down communism.

He launched a campaign called "Romania wants Motorways". Part of the campaign was asking fellow citizens to protest with him by stopping work for 15 minutes on Friday, 15th of March 2019. The campaign that was launched through a video, that went viral, reaching over 1 million views on Facebook, and his manifest gained traction all over the media. The campaign, that was labeled with a hashtag #șîeu (which translates as me too), aimed to draw attention to the poor road infrastructure in Romania and the lack of interest from the authorities in building highways in the country. And part of the campaign was Ștefan's plan to build the world shortest highway, that was inaugurated on the 15th of March 2019, for which he spent around EUR 4,500 to build a meter of highway on a land plot he owns near Suceava. The highway has set the World Record for the shortest highway in the world.

So I decided to go and see this 1 Meter Highway myself, and I did. While I was there, I felt the devastation that the lack of highways caused, as you walk through this small museum, you can see the skeletons of totaled cars that were involved in real-life accidents that resulted to death of the passengers in them, which, in a way, broke my heart just seeing them. You can witness with your own eyes the devastative impact the lack of highways has on people's lives by just gazing upon the remains of the vehicles. And then you walk a little further, you can see the 1 meter of asphalt concrete that was built as symbol to the lack of highway infrastructure in the region of Moldova and the country overall.

The asphalt strip was built as a protest against Romania's lack of highway infrastructure. It has lane markers and even a speed limit sign, and the cars crash scene next to the 1 Meter highway is definitely putting things in perspective. According to The European Commission, Romania tops the blacklist of road casualties in the European Union. In 2017 alone, more than 1900 people were killed on countryside roads. Experts say this is due to the lack of modern infrastructure. According to Ionut Ciurea, director of Pro Infrastructure Association, an NGO that monitors major motorway projects in Romania, around 2% of Romania's GDP is lost on road access.

"People united in pursuit of a righteous cause are unstoppable." Desmound Tutu

What Ștefan did, in my personal opinion, was amazing. He united Romanians under a cause that impacts all their lives. While watching the documentary with my Romanian girlfriend, I have witnessed her emotions as she was explaining how she is truly related to everything in the documentary, and how she was very proud to see how her fellow country women and men united again for a great cause.

Highways have many benefits, from contribution to social growth, reducing travel time, integrating different regional communities, increasing vehicle life-span, reducing accidents rate & supporting economical developments. Benefits that are currently many nations around the world are denied from, including a country with great historical and geographical significance like Romania. A country that, according to Jeremy Clarkson, has the "The world's best road" in one Top Gear episode (S14E01), the Transfagarasan Highway.

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.

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