Potholes, and how to look at them - Alexander McCall Smith

People who go down to the sea in ships, and occupy their business in great waters, as the psalmist puts it, have to attend to navigation.

They do this with paper charts or, more commonly today, with electronic chart plotters, which are much the same thing, but with GPS to show you where you are. These charts set out all the things that sailors are concerned about – the position of rocks and shipwrecks, lighthouses and navigational buoys, and other perils, such as overfalls. In the charts for the seas around Scotland’s west coast, there has been only one stretch of water that has traditionally been marked as being so dangerous as to be unnavigable – the Gulf of Corryvreckan. The message on the charts has effectively been this: don’t go there.

The Corryvreckan whirlpool amounts to a hole in the sea. It almost accounted for George Orwell, when he was staying on Jura, and had a passing fisherman not been able to rescue him, the world would never have had his dystopian warning, 1984. But the important thing is that anybody in that stretch of sea is given full warning by the charts. Further north, where the Firth of Lorne meets the Sound of Mull, the charts will show a more muted warning, with tidal overfalls being marked prominently for anybody who bothers to read the fine print.

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That is navigation at sea – a potentially dangerous business in any weather. But what about navigation on land? How can we make our way around the numerous hazards that have appeared in our roads? Take Edinburgh as an example. Ask any road user – motorist or cyclist – about the state of the roads and you are likely to get at the very least a sad shaking of the head, and at the most an explosive outburst of dissatisfaction. Our roads are now so full of potholes that in just about every street it is impossible to drive in a straight line. Evasive action is required all the time, making progress on some roads seem like the weaving of a seriously incompetent or inebriated driver.

This is not the fault of the local councillors. They are acutely aware of the state of the roads, as they hear from their constituents regularly on the subject. The reason why our roads are in this state is that those who are responsible for maintaining them simply do not have a budget large enough to pay for what needs to be done. Much more money is needed, and the only way in which that can be raised is through raising taxes. We need to pay more to ensure the upkeep of this most vital part of our infrastructure. Those of us who can afford to pay more should pay it. I will willingly do that. Those who cannot afford it, should not be burdened. That’s a basic principle of fairness in taxation policy.

Of course, this sounds like a complaint, and perhaps we do not need more complaints at this delicate stage of our recovery (if that is what we are in). So in a more positive spirit, let’s consider the advantages of having all these holes in our roads. Let’s celebrate what is good in our current situation.

Firstly, speed: the state of our roads does not allow drivers to go very fast. Much of Edinburgh is now a 20mph zone (a good thing). But the problem with that speed limit is that there are large numbers of drivers who completely ignore it. These irresponsible citizens are finding it harder to be irresponsible now that we have all these potholes preventing them from picking up any degree of speed. Potholes in fact, are more effective than speed bumps in many cases. Speed bumps are obvious: potholes may not be seen until one is upon them, or in them, so to speak. So one good thing about potholes is that they are encouraging the slowing down of traffic. Indeed, there are places, I believe, where potholes are being installed as a cheap alternative to speed bumps. This is prudence and careful housekeeping of the sort that should be encouraged.

Then there is the fact that many potholes fill with water when it rains and remain full for days afterwards. Some people say that this is a bad thing, but they are wrong. What we need to do is to regard these watery potholes as tiny lochans, some of which may indeed get bigger and bigger and become considerable expanses of water. Duddingston Loch, for example, is believed to have started as a pothole on the road to Portobello, and is now a very attractive loch. The old Nor Loch, drained to allow the creation of the New Town, was believed, too, to have been a pothole (the Nor Pothole) that was not filled in by the Council of the time and eventually became a full-scale loch.

Water-filled potholes provide an important habitat for fauna that would otherwise find the urban landscape unwelcoming. There are several significant potholes in South Edinburgh where there are now established populations of waterfowl. In Lauder Road, for example, that is riddled with potholes, eider ducks (Somateria Mollisima, as they are called in that part of Edinburgh) have been nesting in potholes for some weeks now. There are also greylag geese to be seen in potholes on Colinton Road, and shortly we shall also see frog-spawn being laid in many of Edinburgh’s streets. All of this is positive.

Recently, potholes in Edinburgh have afforded artists the opportunity to express themselves in what are known as pothole installations. That is what lies behind these white circles that one sees painted around promising potholes. Some people believe that to be a sign that something is going to be done to fill in the pothole, but that is not the real explanation. These white circles are artistic statements, made by community artists, that “celebrate the pothole in its essential circularity”, to put it in the language of the author of Pothole Art, a recent book on the subject.

The trick, of course, is to look on the bright side. But also to look out where you are going. That is equally important.