anatomy of a pothole

untitled by Gideon TsangMy wife is a civil engineer, so she knows all the nuances of pavement fatigue: ravelling, rutting, block cracking, longitudinal and transverse cracking, and, of course, the dreaded alligator cracking. I’m not a civil engineer, so to me it all just looks like rough roads. And the roughest of all are the potholes.

We always get a bumper crop of potholes in the Twin Cities. It’s a function of weather and physics: water gets into existing cracks, expands as it freezes, pushes asphalt out of the gaps, letting in more water and ice, and the vicious cycle continues. When the holes form in the wheel path of the road, traffic helps the process along and the potholes grow to gargantuan scale.

It seems to me that pothole season has come early this year, though this may be a function of my biking to work this winter. Cars can generally get over the smaller potholes with just a few shimmies and shakes, but a bicycle can be literally consumed by them. The stretch of Summit Avenue east of Lexington was especially bad this morning, with a veritable minefield to negotiate; Mississippi Boulevard was pretty awful as well, with some sinkholes that could swallow a Volkswagen Bug, much less a little green Sekine.

My tendency is to put the blame on the recession, and Governor No’s habit of cutting aid to cities over the last several years. The potholes were bad last year, when Minneapolis and St. Paul had to choose between funding the police and fire departments, and maintaining the streets. Many of those potholes weren’t fixed before winter, and the combination of sparse plowing and snowy weather has exacerbated the crumbling pavement. When that snow and ice starts to recede in June April, I expect many more holes to be uncovered.

A couple days of melting has started to uncover parts of the pathetically-plowed bike lane on Summit, and the pavement there is in especially bad shape. Indeed, it’s still far more dangerous to be in the sliver of bicycle lane than in the roadway; I’d rather take my chances with the cars than with randomly-appearing ponds and craters. At this rate, the bike lanes might be unusable well into the summer, at least in those stretches of road that are already crumbling away.

Street repair (he says as he hops off his bike and onto his soap box) is one of those functions of government that, while decidedly unsexy, unambiguously serves the common good. All of us–motorists, pedestrians, cyclists, transit riders–depend on the roads to get us where we’re going, and to get our goods and services delivered. Potholes are committed democrats and social levelers: they’ll as gladly mangle the suspension of a Lexus as crumple the wheel of an old 10-speed. If anything can remind us that we’re all in this together–rich and poor, old and young, Democrat and Republican–it’s the rough shape of the roads we all share. At least until the wealthy start building helipads, or perfect teleportation technology.

While I don’t expect “Pothole Progressives” to emerge as the answer to the Sewer Socialists of yesteryear, I don’t think it’s too much to hope that our crumbling roads this spring will remind people that while it’s OK to want government to stay out of their private lives, there’s still quite a bit of public space that ought to be the business of us all. Yes, it costs money–raised largely through taxes–to plow the streets, fill the potholes, and pave the sidewalks. But such is the price of living in an urban center that has in the past taken great pride in its infrastructure.

Meanwhile, keep your helmet straps tight and wheel bolts secured; it’s going to be a bumpy spring.

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