Friday, October 17, 2008

From the seat of my pants

Driving in Orange County, California turned out to be quite an amazing experience for someone from New Orleans.

Bumps, potholes and anything that would add vibration to travel on the city streets simply do not exist in Orange County. Specifically, I was driving in Santa Ana this week, the city where John Wayne Airport (yes, it’s named after the Duke) is located.

It took a few moments for me to comprehend the beauty of the silky smooth roads there. I was driving a rental car, so my first thought was that the car had a really nice ride and excellent seats. But as I looked down the pristine roadway of perfectly manicured black asphalt, it dawned on me: these are really nice streets.

Perhaps you have to be a civil engineer to fully appreciate what a well built and impeccably maintained road is all about. But perhaps the experience is not so cerebral and requires nothing more than buttocks accustomed to the constant rumble of unraveling asphalt and cracked concrete of an aging, neglected city like New Orleans.

As I drove along, I began to look for potholes or any sign of distress that would tell me I was driving in a real city, a city like my own sweet Crescent City that struggles to keep up with street maintenance. It was a fruitless search.

Making my way toward my hotel, I turned off the major thoroughfare onto a more local street, again hoping—yes, hoping—that I would find the urban decay that was so much a part of home. Again, nothing but smooth, disturbance-free travel.

A few blocks on, I came upon a small traffic jam. A-Ha, I thought, they may have beautiful streets, but they still can’t efficiently convey the full flow of weekday traffic. As we merged over into a single line of cars, I saw up ahead the common trappings of roadway work: large orange warning signs and the ubiquitous traffic cones. Drawing closer, I saw a pair of paving machines and men in bright safety vests moving hot asphalt about with shovels.

And painted in block letters on the equipment were the letters “SAPW,” Santa Ana Public Works.

The city actually had their own in-house crew resurfacing streets. Even though the street for a mile in either direction was, to my best judgment, in excellent serviceable condition, here they were fixing whatever minor imperfections they had found with all haste.

I pulled up to the hotel a few blocks later and parked the car. After settling into my room, I opened the curtains to look over the vista. Down the hill was an unbroken quilt of urbanized terrain. Hotels, gas stations, shops, banks and houses blended into an unbroken cityscape down the slope to the Pacific Ocean in the distance. Weaving them all together were the streets, those vital threads of commerce and communication, the very lifelines of the modern city.

It is no accident that we talk about our roads in biological terminology. No organic community will grow or thrive or be healthy without adequately functional arteries. Living as I have for most of my life in New Orleans, I guess I had developed low expectations for what high quality streets looked like or even how maintaining excellent streets could even be possible.

But what my mind had lazily never considered or dreamed possible, my buttocks discovered and exclaimed: it is not simply a fantasy to have streets in good repair.

Various professional and trade organizations as well as government highway officials have warned us for years that poorly maintained roads cost the public a lot of money—more even than the money our politicians might think they are “saving” by permanently deferring maintenance. Every mile we drive over pocked and damaged roadway takes a toll on our cars in maintenance, lost travel time and reduced fuel efficiency.

And I will add that every mile we drive on the pitiful streets of New Orleans dulls what should be our collective community outrage over the sad condition of this most basic city service. It lulls us into the dangerous mindset that, “That’s just how things are here. There’s no point in trying to fix this or any other of our city’s problems.”

As defeating and destructive and that thinking is, I realized perhaps an even greater damage done to us by our pathetic streets comes in the reverse situation to my recent trip to Orange County.

As awed as I was by the quality of their streets, what must the visitor to New Orleans think of OUR roadways? And what must they conclude about the viability of OUR city? Who wants to live in a city or invest in a city that can’t even fill the potholes?

It’s a jarring thought, even more jarring than driving down a local street here.


Anonymous said...



Schroeder said...

This strongly resonates with me, having grown up in Wisconsin, and attempting in the last couple of weeks to diagnose yet another new rattle emerging near the passenger side of the vehicle.

BTW, that pothole machine we have here absolutely sucks. You could do better tamping down tar and rocks with your foot.

Jean Lafitte said...

Ahh, Tim. I lived in L.A. for 20 years before moving to NOLA 14 years ago. Yeah, the streets are better there, as they know to the bone how much folks rely on them.

But while I don't want to excuse NOLA's neglect of the streets, it's also true they're dealing here with a very difficult challenge. The mud the city is built on is constantly shifting, sinking and rising, always undermining the roadbeds. In SoCal you can build a road on solid land sitting on bedrock and know it's not going to move. Except occasionally. Violently.

Anonymous said...

Even with the virtually non-existent maintenance on our streets, there is a good reason our streets are so poor. They are essentially built on a compost. In short, their isn't anything remotely solid underneath.

We could build roads that would hold up, essentially constructing spread foundations for them or putting them on piles, but the cost would be astronomical. And even then, they would be more stable than the land around them which would ultimately undermine them.

If we matched dollar for dollar and then some, the maintenance budgets per mile of the so-called civilized world, our roads would still not measure up to the other places named. The average soil movement we see, blows away the worst freeze-thaw cycle.

All that being said, we can and should be doing a hell of a lot better, but it really isn't possible to match the results you get in places where they have the stuff called "rock" underfoot.

Sophmom said...

Okay. I'm going to try to make some sense out of my nonsensical thinking. I live in a city with pretty good streets, and one of our cars has a recent (and very expensive) suspension problem that I strongly suspect came from spending too much time in New Orleans... BUT, somehow, when I get there, and find myself bumpity bumping along, my heart swells and I can't help but smile, because it's the surest sign that I've in fact arrived in New Orleans. I guess it's easy for me to say. :/

Tim said...

...and the Pollyanna Award goes to: Sophmom! For finding something "glad" in the decrepit streets of New Orleans.

Thanks for being a fan of this crazy town, and peace,


Anonymous said...

Yes to the issue of subsidence. Also remember that Orange County is also vastly, vastly wealthier per capita. Even so, I just read the other day about the worsening condition of California's roads on the whole. This Sacramento Bee columnist sees the grass as being far, far greener in Georgia.

(Orange County also, off the subject just ever-so slightly, had a big brush with incompetence not all that long ago, in 1994. It had to go into bankruptcy-related reorgnization after its investments in derivatives blew up. Just one of those things that too many people blew off as not a sign of things to come, or events still to come. Here's a bit about it from a publication of the Univ. of California Press and the Public Policy Inst. of California.)
-- Ray