Anyone who argues in favour of small government, and who doesn’t these days? (apart from supporters of big government, who seem always to get their own way) insists on the need to reduce the size of bureaucracies. Public service departments have become bloated, advocates of downsizing say - usually with the implied rather than stated supplementary assertion that if the bureaucrats in them are not actually freeloading on the taxpayer they are not giving value for money either.
Well, step out the door in any urban area, particularly an inner-city one, and you’ll see evidence of one branch of bureaucratic endeavour that, if judged only by the ubiquity of its signage, is giving the taxpayer 100 cents worth of activity for every dollar in its pay packet. The bureaucratic departments charged with the maintenance of our roads seem never not to be at it. At national, state or local level, OzRoads, CitThru, StreetSmart, SmoothTraf – whatever pzazzy name their most recent departmental rebranding has come up with – appear, from the number of roadworks signs wherever you look, to be powerhouses of public action for the communal good.
But this is prestidigitation. That CAUTION. ROAD WORKS AHEAD sign you can just about make out a hundred car lengths ahead as you sit in motionless frustration in a traffic jam doesn’t mean road works at all. The road can stay in potholed neglect till the cows come home for anything that sign has to do with keeping it in repair.
Look up and what do you see? A cage of scaffolding enclosing a tower of offices or apartments rising skyward above the gridlock. The edifice, when completed, will of course be a building of benchmark-setting hideousness, especially if it’s been designed by a cutting-edge architect, but that’s beside the point. It could be Chartres Cathedral under construction and its intrusion would be equally objectionable. For the objection lies not in the esse of the new structure but in the apparent necessity that to bring it into being whole traffic lanes are blocked off, often in busy streets that even without obstruction (and with usually empty bike lanes deducted from their limited space) are not wide enough anyway for all the traffic they have to carry these days.
What that road works sign doesn’t mean is Your Taxes at Work. What it does mean is that someone is making money and that your valuable time wasted sitting in a Sargasso Sea of stationary vehicles and getting into a state about running late is helping the profit pile up. So ubiquitous has this phenomenon become that it is something of a surprise when you find that the road works barriers denote real road works.
But why, you might wonder as you wait to inch forward, why would anyone put up signs saying road works when what is meant is “building works”? One can only imagine that this shameless attempt at deception is intended to put a cloak of legitimacy on piracy of public property. Road works, irksome as they can be to road users, are at least nominally carried out for public benefit. The works impeding your journey are not for the public but for the benefit of the speculative builders (or “property developers” as they prefer genteelly to label themselves) who induced the public authorities responsible to issue a permit to close the road or part of it to citizens entitled to move freely and unrestrictedly along it. Road works! These are private building works and their use of exactly the same signs that denote genuine road works must be the result of collusion between builders and bureaucrats. You could add that if they were road works, there wouldn’t be any space for them anyway, so crammed are the blocked-off lanes with builders’ trucks backing and plaintively beeping, little cabins like phone boxes containing clean sit-down facilities of approved hygienic standard, skips, stacks of concrete slabs and an intestinal tangle of trailing pink and grey cables.
What does it take to get a permit to block a busy street? I suppose in a society of exemplary moral probity such as ours it’s not a matter of slipping a manila envelope of cash into the appropriate hand at the town hall. Besides, surely urban councillors are sea-green incorruptible (as Councillor Robespierre of the Paris revolutionary city council was said to be), or often Green anyway, and people like that can’t be bought, can they? But, perhaps in a sense they can, by the prospect of twenty more storeys of ratepayers contributing to the municipal coffers.
As you peer into the sea of cars ahead, hoping to descry a faint flicker of forward movement, like climate-change researchers on an icebound polar vessel waiting for global warming to kick in and free them, you can fill the unforgiving minute observing the cast of the building site (the putative road workers) in their various capacities. There are the hard-hatted builders themselves, all bright in iridescent orange and not so much building as standing around in groups engaged in perpetual earnest conference or mobile phoning each other. Stationed like sentinels in the public way are a couple of additional brightly fluorescent functionaries, glowering indifference to the traffic snarl as they chew gum and hold lollypop signs with the — under the circumstances —redundant instructions, “Stop” and “Slow”. The only absentees in this panorama of toil are the “developers” themselves in their natty imported suits. No doubt they’re otherwise engaged planning new street-blocking “developments” in their corporate aeries on the top floors of characterless glass towers they’ve already “developed”. As they pore over their budgets you’d think they’d be able to find a few dollars for some semiotic accuracy: instead of the yellow ROAD WORKS AHEAD barriers they’ve borrowed from the council or whoever why can’t they have their own signs painted with THIS LANE IS BLOCKED FOR OUR NEW BUILDING? (Their PR department might recommend a fig leaf of ostensible concern for the inconvenience of the motorists blocked with it: THANK YOU FOR YOUR PATIENCE WHILE WE’RE BUILDING IT.)
Usually at the site there is another sign, CRANE WORKING OVERHEAD. Its purpose is hard to discern. If it’s a warning that the crane might drop something on you, or itself come crashing down, thanks but no thanks. Stuck in traffic like a fly in amber, how would you get out from under it anyway? But there must be drivers who read it and wish the crane would stoop down and pick them up and carry them out of the gridlock via an aerial route.
Streets are civilisation’s arteries, the sine qua non of a community’s functioning, its means of internal communication, as the Latin source of both words, communis, reminds us. Putting them to other uses, not only commercial, but allegedly charitable, or just frivolous — turning them into pistes for “fun runs” or swarms of cycle racers or for meretricious displays of identity politics — is inducing public sclerosis and perhaps private nervous breakdown.
To keep our civic arteries unclogged it might help if local planners adopted a rule that if you can’t build something without overflowing the confines of the site and turning the surrounding streets into a builder’s yard it’s too big and you shouldn’t be given a permit to build it.
6 April 2015
Published in Quadrant