Belfast Telegraph

Malachi O'Doherty: The shameful state of Belfast's streets - as revealed by this newspaper - is not just an inconvenience to people who live there

We're on the road to nowhere

The state of our streets cannot impress would-be investors, says suffering cyclist Malachi
The state of our streets cannot impress would-be investors, says suffering cyclist Malachi
The state of our streets cannot impress would-be investors, says suffering cyclist Malachi
The state of our streets cannot impress would-be investors, says suffering cyclist Malachi
The state of our streets cannot impress would-be investors, says suffering cyclist Malachi

Who'd be a road? You start out in life with an even surface, nicely finished, having been rollered over, sprayed and trimmed. Your jet black satin patina has been speckled with fine grit and, when the first cars pass over you, there is a softness to the initial contact with brisk rubber that sounds almost like a kiss.

From there it is all deterioration. First there is the abrasion of the heavy traffic. If there is any yield likely in the foundations below, the trucks and buses will find it. Then someone will come along and fill the dimples with thicker, coarser tar.

Then there is the weather. Water adds a glisten for a while and then leaves only drabness behind. Worse, it gets into the little cracks and widens them.

Worse still, it freezes in there and expands and breaks up the finely wrought texture that men laboured to create. Then, it melts again, flows away and leaves holes - potholes.

They get that name, presumably, because they are like little pots ready to fill with more water at the next shower or from streams running off the hills.

And then, as if that wasn't bad enough, the very people who made the road so fine and even and such a pleasure to ride on come back with their drills and their spades and their heavy machinery.

Surgery on a road comes very early in its life. No road is finished off, least of all when it is first laid down and declared open. As soon as it is open for traffic it is open for more work on it.

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I wonder if the workmen who come along and dig up nice, new, smooth tarmac have any sense of the violation they are inflicting on it, or if it is just a job to them. Yet, who hasn't looked at a nice new road and thought it beautiful and wished it would stay that way?

No, there is no point in being romantic about our roads.

They are patchworks. They are dug up for new cables to be laid under them, for drainage and sewerage repair. Yet some of them seem to get dug up a lot more than others.

Walk along any stretch of road in Northern Ireland and you will see the smooth bits spread over the rough bits, the wee tracks across a street, the new surround to a manhole.

Any sentiment about the original glory of pristine tarmac is irrelevant. The sort of care that would be taken to patch a piece of worn carpet with something the same colour and texture doesn't apply when a road is being restored after work. And, yet, we spend a lot of time on a road.

You see it more closely if you are walking or cycling. You feel it under you on a bike and doubt then if anyone ever considered your comfort and safety when they were reopening this stretch to traffic.

One area that has been hugely disrupted in recent months has been the Upper Newtownards Road. It used to be that MLAs Daithi McKay and Conal McDevitt cycled up there to Stormont.

I have always found it an horrific road to cycle. Ironically, it is the first bit of cycling experience that a lot of people get, for one of the best and oldest bike shops in the city is up there, Dave Kane's.

I have come out of there on a new bike myself, imagining the slick grace with which I would skim the roads and bank on corners, only to find myself trundling like a cart with wooden wheels and feeling it where it hurts.

Near where I live, Park Road has been dug up many times. One has qualms about visualising what might be under there, but the smells of sewage on parts of the Ormeau Road provide hints. There have been dark mutterings about "fatbergs".

Certainly, the drills and diggers have been back several times. And still that whiff shames the area.

Another time there was a cavity found under the Ravenhill Road, preparing to swallow vehicles whole, repaired in time to spare us that horror.

But the state of our roads says something about us and repeat repairs suggest that we aren't very good at infrastructure, but have to come back over and over again to tweak it and readjust it.

And a patch looks like poverty. It used to be that when you drove over the border into Donegal you were passing from a part of the country that was well-ordered and maintained into a region that was poor and dilapidated. Now, it is the other way round.

And people judge a country by the state of its roads in much the same way as they judge an office building, or hotel, or your home, by the condition of the walls and floors.

If you went into a shop and found the carpet up in one corner and broken tiles exposed, you would be less inclined to do business there.

We want investors to come and look at our cities as places where they might set up. Those who guide them will dress for the part and take them to the finest hotels and talk up our infrastructural assets, then drive them around over bumpy roads, past lines of plastic cones.

And whereas cranes over a city look like a mark of prosperity and development, roadworks look like someone's past carelessness being made up for. What worries business and critics of the way in which our roads are being maintained is that the patching-up is itself being done patchily and without the kind of strategic co-ordination that would inflict less inconvenience on residents and road-users.

The figures unearthed by the Belfast Telegraph astonish even those of us who have lived through the disruption and witnessed it.

The Ormeau Road has had nearly 300 repairs in the last five years. That figure, of course, disguises the fact that some of these have been small jobs and others massive, causing the very houses to shake.

And the Ormeau comes fifth in the league of roads which have suffered the most. The Newtownards Road was being repaired at a rate of one new job every three days.

And all of this is done in the hope that, in the end, we will have a beautiful city, friendly to the Glider and the cyclist and accommodating of the necessary traffic, with smooth and finished roads that advertise our efficiency and elegance.

But a road is never finished, is it?

Belfast Telegraph

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