Rocky Road

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Cycling intimately acquaints you with every bump, slice, crease, divot, ledge, ripple and of course pothole in a street, because not noticing means you might get thrown off your steed into bone-breaking and life ending car traffic.

While riding along Lafayette Street in Manhattan, or Bergen Street in Brooklyn, or essentially anywhere in New York City, what I notice is surfaces that can only be described as poor and frankly dangerous for someone on a bike.

New York City is not the exception in this. It’s been true in every city I have ever lived in in the United States, which includes some geographic and cultural diversity. Abroad, that’s not so much the case, particularly in the prosperous countries of Western Europe. They notice the difference when the travel here, let me assure you. A few years ago when I was living in Boston a friend from Germany surveyed the pot-holed streets in Cambridge around the prestigious university of Harvard with some amazement.

"It reminds me of a Third-world country," he said with a grin. "Apparently no one cares!"

I don’t think that’s the case, but streets here do seem unusually bad. Why is that so?

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When I swerved to avoid a pothole, I would tend to curse City Hall, and particularly the Department of Transportation. It’s responsible for the streets. Why doesn’t it do a better job maintaining them?

Then it hit me that my logic really wasn’t inclusive enough. Most of the bumps and bruises on city streets relate to what is underneath the streets, because most of the bumps and bruises are caused by repairs after the streets have been opened up for some kind of work on electrical, gas, steam, water, phone or subway lines. And DOT doesn’t own these utilities; other institutions do, including private companies. When Verizon puts in a new phone cable, or Con Edison repairs a gas line, its crews tear up the street, and its crews repair them. And not surprisingly, their crews may not put as high a priority on repairing streets as they do on installing phone cables or gas lines.

Then there are the other public agencies with interest below the street, like the water lines managed by the city’s water department, and the subway and train lines managed by big public agencies that answer to the state.

What it adds up to is many institutions, all working beneath the streets, and then repairing them afterward, often with private subcontractors, which then adds an additional variable to the task of keeping streets neat.

If you look at the relatively smooth streets of places like Germany, France or Scandinavia, what you generally find is fewer private companies laying public infrastructure like water, gas and electric lines, and more public ones.

New York City and American cities follow the Anglo-Saxon model, derived from Great Britain, of letting private companies do much of the primary work in installing infrastructure. This saves taxes in the short run, but can create inefficiencies and bumpy streets in the long run. As I said in my latest book that just came out in paperback, Beneath the Metropolis, London didn’t even have a public water system until early in the 20th century. Before that it had a half dozen competing private water companies, all tearing up streets to lay their own lines, (and sometimes sabotaging their competitors). New York had a similar condition with its gas and electric lines before a company with the name Edison "consolidated" them into one corporation.

Having multiple private companies and public agencies responsible for the care of the street creates many opportunities for miscommunications and poor or faulty work. Folks I know at DOT tell me quite a few horror stories.

Is there a way we can make our streets better, without completely reorganizing our economy? There is, and that is better public oversight. As I have talked about regarding other issues in the city, an important but relatively neglected part of government is diligent and conscientious oversight of private companies doing public work. This can be making sure a developer puts in the right kind of escalator in a subway station, to making sure there are good paving standards for private companies to follow, and having enough resources to make sure those paving standards are met.

While Mayor Bloomberg’s recent plan to send out squads of folks on foot and bike to methodically inspect the quality of the streets is a good one, what is needed even more is rigorous enforcement of standards that already exist for the care and maintenance of streets, regardless of who is doing the work.

Flickr photos by JSSchumacher and Susan NYC

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