Apr 14, 2010

Highway Blues

All Rights Reserved © 2010 Thomas W. Day

A while back I spent a flu-infested weekend watching European motorcycle travel videos. For several minutes a critical aspect of the first film, the smooth on-bike camera work, made absolutely no sense to me. Eventually I decided that European roads must actually be paved competently. Any attempt I've made at Minnesota on-bike camera footage has been marred by massive vibration. One incident cost me a few hundred dollars in camera repair bills when the trip vibrated the guts loose in a supposedly "indestructible mini-cam." Over the years, I've had a few videos submitted for my Motorcycling Minnesota show that were interesting, but too regularly interrupted by camera glitches and sync dropouts to be used without hours of frame-by-frame editing. I did that once and decided to never be tempted again, no matter how interesting the footage. I've been trying to do a helmet noise test for the last year, but my solid-state sound gear keeps shaking to pieces while I try to gather road data. Highway construction is simply not a skill belonging to the citizens of this state.

For example, MNDOT built an extravaganza of weird highway engineering in my backyard. Some government genius decided that the five minute traffic jam that occurs every weekday rush hour was justification to build an LA-style multi-lane freeway mousetrap that will filter two lanes of 35E into two lanes of I694. Esher would be proud of MNDOT's assortment of swooping overpasses, but I think they created one of the nation's last monuments to mindless urban sprawl. After two years, the construction is still on-going and I figure MNDOT will finish this shrine a few minutes before gas hits $10/gallon and everything north of White Bear Lake and south of the Humphrey Airport becomes a collection of tele-commuter ghost towns.[1] When the asphalt mousetrap is finished, I give it about three weeks before it all decays into the rubble Minnesota calls "pavement." The crap that passes for asphalt here wouldn't be used for patching rural driveways in other parts of the world. Minnesota and other eastern states build the world's only water-soluble highways.

For the most part, the United States (and, especially, in the east) are incapable of building highways worth traveling. Moments after we pave a section of road, it begins to crumble into disconnected chunks of asphalt, strip-mine-sized potholes, and mini-canyons. It's probably a nasty combination of corrupt bureaucrats and incompetent contractors, but the result is that roads last a few seconds before they begin disintegrate. There is a section of I35 just a bit north of Albert Lee that is so freakin' awful that I once stopped to see if I had a flat front tire or a disintegrating wheel. Heading west on I90, the right lane of the freeway was so trashed that my back was practically pounded into dust. These two pitiful excuses for roads typical of Minnesota's attempts at the art of road building. At the local level, most of St. Paul's residential streets would make a respectable motocross course and Minneapolis is no improvement. Many of our two lane roads are simply a waste of tar and paint.

Before I condemn all of American highways, I have to admit that Colorado actually manages to put a surface on a roadway that approaches a decent paved standard, although they often take a decade to build a mile or two. New Mexico is astoundingly un-American in its ability to manage asphalt and cement. However, Rust Belt highway engineering is a national embarrassment. Chicago's freeways and toll roads are unattended bomb craters. It's hard to tell Cleveland and Detroit pavement from volcano rubble. My limited experience with east coast freeways and highways always makes me appreciate the fact that I'm only partially responsible for the condition of rental cars. Face it, from the western edge of Nebraska heading east, "highway engineering" is an oxymoron.

So here's my suggestion: Give It Up. As a nation, we can't manage construction, so we should admit failure and quit trying. The rural dirt and gravel roads we have are actually pretty drivable, in comparison to the paved disasters. Even if our dirt roads weren't better road surfaces than our freeways, I'm happier knowing that traction and road surface will be consistently poor; rather than inconsistently mediocre.

One should always go with the talents one has, rather than waste effort on unobtainable skills. Since we can't manage pavement, I advise that we give up the whole idea. We're simply not smart enough to deal with it. I recommend that we plow up the highways, freeways, and streets and give back most of the land to the homeowners to whom that property originally belonged. We can leave just enough asphalt for paved bicycle trails, because if MNDOT can't manage pavement, it appears that the folks who design the DNR's bicycle trails are almost competent. A little of the roadway could also be left "undeveloped," for off-road vehicles. I don't mean four-wheel blimps because that's just a waste of space. I mean vehicles like . . . dirtbikes. Good old fashioned, real motorcycles; not girly-man whimp-bikes that require impossible-to-build smooth-as-a-baby's-butt roadways, but real motorcycles that can negotiate any terrain nature coughs up. This brilliant solution would inspire mass transit design, getting the idiots out of their SUVs, and reduce hydrocarbon emissions.

And it would be a lot more fun to ride to work.

[1] A depressing, but complete site for all sorts of links to information about the coming energy crisis is http://www.lifeaftertheoilcrash.net/.

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