Roads scholar

I have often been accused of being superficial – mostly (perhaps entirely) by me, but then again who else is forced to endure quite so much of my company? – and this post may reinforce that view as it will focus entirely on the surface of things (the things being roads in this case).

As a cyclist, I experience roads in a much more direct way than the mere motorist – I see them at close range and the lack of suspension on my vehicle (and, for that matter, my backside) means that I feel their surface imperfections in a very physical way.  However, this is an everyday occurrence, so you might wonder why I choose to explore this topic now.  There have been a couple of recent cues:

  • Just before Christmas the government announced it was going to provide money to fix 18 million potholes.  It struck me that if they started from my flat, this money would be exhausted within a mile – and so seemed woefully inadequate for the entire country.
  • On a recent episode of The Unbelievable Truth, one of the “improbable” truths was that a new set of roadworks starts every 10.5 seconds – as a regular roads user this was improbable, but because 10.5 seconds seemed far too long a gap.

Given my very close, physical relationship with the road surface and my tendency to traverse the same routes on a regular basis, I can watch some roads deteriorate in real time.  Often, I can predict where the road will deteriorate: though this requires little skill beyond vague recall of the erosion-based content of the O-level Geography course and, in particular, the segment on glaciation and the work of freeze-thaw action and plucking.  As so often, the possession of O-level Geography means that my understanding of important issues relating to the country’s critical infrastructure seems vastly greater than those charged with its planning and management.

It seems that macadam goes back to the 1830s, and its use in combination with tar to the 1850s, but tarmac as we know it today was only patented in 1901 – nevertheless, as a species, we have had more than a century of experience in its application and maintenance.  Given how far our skill in other areas has advanced in this timeframe, our current performance with tarmac seems all-the-more disappointing.  It strikes me that there are two major causes of premature failure of our roads – well, there is one over-riding cause of damage which is heavy vehicles using them, if we only allowed bikes and pedestrians to use them (despite the obesity crisis) they would last a great deal longer.  This point brings me to a matter of public policy that always puzzles me: in most of our major cities, it is more expensive (and difficult) to leave a vehicle at rest (harming neither the road nor the environment) as a result of parking fees and restrictions than it is to continuously driving it around (despite the cost of fuel).  Surely, we should be encouraging folk to park their vehicles at every possible opportunity: air quality would improve, roads would last longer (and fewer would be needed) and the nation would become fitter, reducing the funding needs of the NHS.  Let’s forget charging for parking and vigorously enforcing payment and restrictions, let people park however they want on the roads (except on bus routes, where any mis-parked vehicles would be destroyed without warning in uncontrolled explosions) – this would quickly make driving anywhere almost impossible and push people out of their cars and onto their feet or public transport.  Perhaps even pay people to park their cars, rather than charging them.  I like to think this is a policy so left-field that even the Greens and UKIP have yet to adopt it!

Anyway, let’s return to my two main causes of premature ageing in roads.  Firstly, we have subsidence.  This suggests EITHER that the UK is much more geologically active then we have been led to believe and that fracking is the least of our problems OR that the road’s foundations have been inadequately prepared.  Given that roads built by the Romans and Incas – in much more tectonically-exciting regions – remain substantially intact in many places, I’m inclined to suspect modern roads are not properly built in the first place.

The second major problem is shoddy repairs.  These are not repairs to wear-and-tear on the roads, but following the all too regular digging of holes in the road to access the goodies that lie beneath.  Now, I have seen pictures of cities before utilities went underground, so I’m pretty sure we do not want to return to those dark and untidy days.  However, the frequency with which the utilities beneath our streets need to be exhumed suggests something is awry with the way they are installed or maintained.  Still, the frequency of such excavations, while irritating, is not the problem but rather the poor quality of the re-instatement work.  If this is inspected at all, I must assume it is before anything heavier than a feather is allowed to drive across the “repair” and is done with the aid of a box brownie, situated somewhere near the orbit or Saturn and which has had its lens liberally smeared with vaseline.  Often these repairs fail to survive as much as a week.  Given that road upkeep is generally funded from the public purse, this situation would seem to represent a major subsidy being granted to private companies.  I would suggest that detailed records need to be kept of those responsible for every piece of reinstatement work and if any issue with that work arises within 10 (say) years, then they should be required to pay for its resolution and a very hefty fine on top.  If there is a worry, given the fast-paced nature of modern capitalism, that the company may no longer exist in 10 years, then they should be required to post sufficient collateral to cover future claims.  This should produce a major saving to the public purse, produce better roads and create a whole new market for risk management products focused around road repairs.

Of course, tarmac is not the only covering chosen for our roads.  Here in Southampton, grey brick pavers seem rather popular.  These can look very attractive (for a while), but seem to suffer from even more rapid deterioration that does tarmac – and are, I assume, much more expensive to fix.  As they are damaged, they create lots of sharp edges that protrude into the roadway, adding an exciting trip hazard for cyclists and pedestrians (and I assume, the chance for brick-related damage to the vulnerable underside of motor vehicles).  Despite their short-lived aesthetic benefits, I think I would have to question the practical sense of using brick pavers on any road subject to heavy vehicular traffic, e.g. buses or lorries, which since the advent of the satnav can be pretty much any road (however minor) not protected by bollards.

With roads, as with so much else, policy and decisions seem to be made by those who have never used (or indeed even seen) the object of their deliberations.  Also, once again, the benefits of O-level Geography are made plain for all to see – perhaps it is time we stopped mocking geography teachers for the leather patches on the jacket elbows and promoted them to senior positions in government and the civil service?  (For the avoidance of doubt, GofaDM is not being sponsored by a cabal of disgruntled, power-hungry geography teachers).


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