Thursday, May 21, 2015

Are They Right To Stop Guerrilla Street Repairs?

{Guest post by Luke Waldron]

After yet another Wisconsin spring playing Dodge-The-Pothole, an idea occurred to me. There were all these potholes, and seemingly no one who cared enough to go and do something about them. Not in any timely fashion anyway. 

But, I'd spent a good portion of my youth watching roads like these being built. If you gave me time and machinery, I could pave a whole road myself, and I wager do a decent job of it. Better than the contractors who re-paved my road seem to have done, lumpy as it is now. Each pothole I dodged made the prospect more appealing to me. On its face, it's an appealing civic hack. Working outside the system, at my own expense, to improve the world around us.

Eventually I found myself reading about the topic on Reddit. The thread was oriented around a man who had been prevented from installing his own guard rail on a curve where his daughter had died due to a lack of a guard rail. Apparently, they really don't take too kindly to this concept. Words like "Vandalism" start getting thrown around, people get ordered to cease working. Makes me sad really. The thread had a number of anecdotes, talking about people who'd done exactly what I'd been thinking of doing and had been shut down by the police. 

Now, in the case of that guardrail, it IS more than just a pothole. A safety feature like that does need to be engineered to certain standards. I can understand why people might not want someone installing their own solution. However, a case could be made that at the very least, a stunt like that could prompt a faster reaction from the people who SHOULD be installing such things. And I do have to wonder if a railing that doesn't meet standards is really any worse than no railing at all. A situation that the powers-that-be seemed to be content with in that case.

Potholes though, I have a harder time buying this.

I've seen the slapdash job that road crews will do making a temporary patch. I can shovel cold-patch into a hole just as well as the folks paid by the government to do it. And much of the time, that's all the effort they'll put into it. My imagination's pretty powerful, but it seems to me like the worst thing that can happen if I shovel down some cold pack and then compress it with a few passes of my tire, is that it wears away and leaves a pothole behind. The worst case scenario I can envision is that we're right back where we started.

Once upon a time in Wisconsin's history, citizens could get out of paying the tax that funded their roads by volunteering for periodic duty in building and maintaining those roads. The practice was abolished because this became more of a social event than a work session, people bringing food and beer and having a grand time of it while the roads fell into disrepair.

Wouldn't it be ironic if a private citizen today WANTED to work on the road, improve the world around them, and they got punished for it? I'll tell you what though, if they brought back the practice (and especially if they'd let you use heavy machinery!) I think I'd be pretty likely to volunteer to help. Somehow I suspect, though, that the insurance companies involved wouldn't be half as thrilled about the prospect as I am.

[note from Bob -- speaking of Powers That Be, there's a good book by that name]

[for more on pothole activism and guerrilla civic hacking, read the post "Guerrilla Civic Hacks: Onomatopoeia & Tweeting Potholes, DIY Urbanism"


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