While the primary function of expressways is to facilitate the movement of vehicles, they have become a major industry in their own right.
|The Jungang Expressway near Danyang, North Chgungcheong Province. (Korea Expressway Corp.)|
According to Korea Expressway Corporation, the state-run body that manages most of the expressways, there were more than 4.2 million highway journeys each day last year.
The figure comes to over 1.5 billion journeys a year, raising over 4 trillion won ($3.5 billion) in toll fees.
In addition, the rest stops – now numbering over 170 – employ thousands of people across the nation, and serve as retail and logistics hubs in areas that would otherwise have little commercial activities.
For travelers, rest areas provide welcome breaks from journeys that can take unreasonably long for such a small country. Although the distance from Seoul to Busan comes in at just under 400 kilometers, the average duration of the journey came to about 7.5 hours during last year’s Chuseok holidays.
“I used to love stopping at rest areas. It was great just begin able to run around after having spent what seemed to be forever in the back of my father’s car with my brother,” 40-year old Kim Min-sung said, recalling his childhood trips to his father’s hometown of Daegu.
“I don’t think there were so many (rest areas) back then, and my brother and I would start begging our parents to stop at every single one soon as we set out.”
With increasing traffic and the number of rest areas, and rising living standards of Koreans, the role of such establishments have also changed.
Long gone are the days when rest areas were far and between, and offered basic services.
Many rest areas now include a range of retail stores, as well as specialty restaurants and entertainment.
“There are some rest areas where they sell particularly good regional specialties like walnut cookies, and I have driven to a rest stop just to get a snack,” Joo Ha-yun, a 27-year old IT worker said.
“There is a rest area with a dog park that is on a whole different scale in Gyeonggi Province, and I have also driven there just to play with my dog for the day.”
South Korea’s expressways themselves sometime provide the stage to scenes not often seen elsewhere.
Like the city roads, the expressways are not free from the nation’s notorious traffic jams, and at times and locations of slow traffic, opportunistic merchants lie in wait.
Some arrange their wares -- ranging from children’s toys to wood carvings -- on the sides of the roads, while bolder entrepreneurs can often be seen venturing out to the lanes to walk in between the cars.
By Choi He-suk (firstname.lastname@example.org)