If they are the result of expansion and contraction, heavy vehicular / friction use, and normal wear and tear, then they may represent how society deems fixing them as more annoying or resource consuming than the problem itself. Yet potholes could also represent how we view the world — as inevitable, as part of a continually aging physical infrastructure, as temporary.
We often proselytise our inability to expect the unexpected…. Yet what do we do when the unexpected is entirely expected?
In my suburban American community, this question rears its head daily as I traverse infrastructure in varying states of disassemblage. As I transit, my encounters with cracks and bumps are not unexpected, isolated events, but a widespread, known obsolescence which comes with time. Yet despite the professional expectations by maintenance crews and the personal expectations borne of a lifetime of experience, I am surprised each time I stumble on a pothole.
I often view these as imperfections in the potential of the built environment, but they can have a purpose beyond the physical phenomena which shaped them. Do potholes simply represent the degradation of a single surface — or are they representative of an entire category of civil services deemed more resource-intensive than the problem itself? Are potholes emblematic of the inevitability of life and a continually ageing physical infrastructure? Could their imperfections be integral to the reinforcement of our own temporality?
Season by season, cracks begin to form in our walls and streets. Pavements heave as the ground shifts and retreats. Potholes germinate and then are nurtured by the cycle of expansion and contraction. The places we prefer — the ones we heavily circulate — are the most vulnerable to the nonphysical elements, as gravity weighs down their texture, and as time weathers their appearances.
In our minds, each road, bridge, parking lot, and sidewalk begins its life with the possibility of new access, faster transit, and safer commutes. Yet, as the momentum of these ideas rushes from paper to construction and from abstract to reality, the sheen of our dreams simultaneously begins to tarnish. As the requirements of realism and use become clear, so do the innate weaknesses of the systems we use to organise our world. These systems require constant maintenance, lest they become unruly. Yet to manage disorder, rules must be imposed. Some items must be addressed first, with an applied hierarchy.
Since the frequency of the pothole suggests a predictable state of disrepair, then there must also be a tool for its repair. After all, if every pathway designed for transit throughout history is notably pockmarked by environmental and user wear-and-tear, then we ought to have a strategy for mitigating them. In a better designed world, there might be self-healing roadways or pothole-proof tires, but in reality, we owe each imperfection with individual/unique attention . This process often requires the very physical act of a labourer packing new material into each void left by time. Then, this fresh patch is left to patina as its own object — unique in its shape, colour, and place. Over time, our streets and sidewalks can become a series of objects — a gallery of time and place recording the memory and selectivity of labour.
Each summer, I watch children ball up the tar from the cracks in the road and disassemble the adhesive holding our city together. Each winter, I watch snow trucks apply abrasive salts and heavy plows to these surfaces — pushing them to their limits. There is a ticking clock to every repair. Not only will each repair require repair, but the underlying system demands comprehensive review periodically. The demands are incessant on our surroundings and on us, pushing us to innovate solutions for resilience and some sort of permanence.
Yet these cannot truly be, for the infrastructure of our lives is beholden to time.
Our built environment and our personal circumstances are guaranteed to change. Some potholes are temporary — easily avoided and easily mended. But others are deep, wide, and easy to fall into when distractions and pressure mount. From the rut on your way to class just deep enough to catch your bike tire to the nagging feeling you do not know enough, potholes can seem to strike at our most vulnerable moment. Yet the heaving pavements of our hearts — those insecurities and failures which seem to catch us time and time again — are not predestined to be destructive. We control the keys to their existence and their effects.
Their power is focused and limited, uncoordinated and reliant on a specific pathway. To get rid of these artifacts is to pretend everything is perfect, but I’m not sure if the mistake lies in the pothole existing as evidence of the world’s imperfections or if the mistake is just an empty hole with no meaning beyond that. Does the ability to fix them erase time, increase convenience, or just cost money?
Potholes can be infilled with surfaces bearing the remnants of their former presence. Potholes can be avoided with premeditated way finding or last minute swerves. Potholes can even be fallen into time and time again, surprising us with their stubborn insistence. Yet these are not mistakes, rather they are moments to reset, learn, and begin anew. They are embedded and inevitable and are defined far more by our responses than by our susceptibility. No matter their form or frequency, potholes do not prevent us from taking the step after the stumble.