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Car-Swallowing Roads

We take our modern roads and highways for granted, especially in the temperate zones where winter’s freeze-up—Sub-arctic Yellowknife, for example— or summer’s toast-up—Phoenix, Arizona or Palm Springs, California for example—aren’t off the charts. But this does not mean seasonal conditions and seasonal variation have no effect on temperate zone roads. Just that modern road building materials and techniques are cleverly engineered to withstand natural challenges and that ongoing maintenance and ongoing upgrading have produced an infrastructure that is the essential circulatory system of modern life and culture both in our cities and in our increasingly linked-up rural surrounds.

When a section of road or highway is out of sync with the demands of this circulatory system or falls below the standard of the rest of the system, its inadequacy becomes apparent relatively quickly and ‘fixing’ it generally becomes (or should become) a government priority. Road fixing has not generally been a highly political matter, although, if involving a costly major highway or bridge development, it can be.

In challenging economic times, government intervention in the economy in the form of ‘make-work’ type projects has often included roadwork projects or at least moved them to the top of the priority list. There are many examples of cities and towns across North America that have not only survived depressions and recessions because of road work projects, but that has come out the other side with more and better road systems that in turn help support and indeed ‘drive’ the upturn in the economic life of their communities.

Nowadays, of course, adding roads or upgrading highway systems are challenged as a cause of and not a cure for traffic congestion. “If you build it, they [the cars] will come” is the view of this constituency.

Since the industrial revolution, bridges that wash out or fall down and roads that sink or slide or disappear under landslides, far from revealing the hand of fate working in human affairs has been considered engineering catastrophes. But nowadays we are increasingly disinclined to claim an unassailable ability to shape the landscape as we see fit.

Our first reaction to highway and road system destruction attendant upon severe weather conditions may be to search for meteorological abnormality rather than sub-standard engineering practices. This is not indicative, however, of greater humility, but rather the reverse. Human activity is suggested by some to be a distorter of global temperatures and hence weather patterns.

In any case, engineering standards must necessarily be improved and adjusted based on experience. This is not to be glib about the destructive impact of severe weather. Recently on the news was a video clip of a row of parked cars in Baltimore falling slowly into a block-long sinkhole after a major storm dumped two days of rain on the east coast of the US. The accompanying soundtrack caught the fearful reaction of bystanders watching the amazing spectacle. Images of our expertly built and maintained roads opening up and swallowing the whole everything on them should be caused to reflect.

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