I think a lot about asphalt these days.
When classes got out for winter break this year in Xalapa and it seemed as if half the city emptied from one day to the next, the municipality, in a rare and shocking show of logic, got to work on fixing some of the more gaping craters in our city’s roads.
I don’t mean to be condescending. It’s just that I’m exactly as weary and cynical as most residents of this city are nowadays. We’ve come to expect as a matter of course the rapid deterioration of the infrastructure and snail-paced repairs using the equivalent of Dollar Store-quality materials that only last until the next heavy rain comes.
We know that we’re just as likely to have an accident from driving too close to the person in front of us as we are from swerving to miss something in the road that shouldn’t be there. This problem isn’t unique to Xalapa, but it is solvable.
As a driver now, I spend a lot of time memorizing where the unpainted speed bumps are on my regular routes, and where the biggest potholes typically sprout, over and over again. I know what “lane” (I use the term “lane” loosely, as it’s actually rare to see painted divisions) to be in on my way home from my daughter’s school to avoid falling into a gaping crater and possibly winding up in China.
As anyone who reads my column has probably deduced by now, I care a lot about both sustainable aesthetics and function. Needless to say, I’m a frustrated but hopeful resident.
Xalapa is beautiful. Situated high in the cloud forest, its gorgeous views of both the Pico de Orizaba and the Cofre de Perote in the distance and green spilling over onto everything that will stand still for more than two days are enough to make you feel like you’re in an urban Fern Gully. Some parts are positively Avatar-esque.
Add to that copious amounts of delicious coffee, the best food in the country, and the city’s artsy and academic vibe, and you’ve got the potential for paradise (I’m biased, of course).
So why can’t we go all the way? I used to assume that the state of Veracruz, for whatever reason, was simply incapable of well-thought-out and fast infrastructure projects, but then I saw Orizaba and I’m doing a terrible job at stifling my jealousy. Why can’t we have nice things, too?
Don’t get me wrong, we’re tentatively making progress. When I returned this month after a couple of weeks in the U.S., several of the streets had been patched up and smoothed over. Great!
Other areas of the city have received or are receiving durable hydraulic pavement rather than the Dollar Store-variety asphalt that’s typically slabbed on the streets, complete with the underground installation of those unsightly cables.
Many of the new projects in the city are being undertaken specifically with pedestrians in mind: expanding and rehabilitating sidewalks, making them handicapped-accessible, adding bike lanes, etc. I just hope we don’t forget that the ability for cars to get around safely is also a big part of making a place safe for pedestrians.
So without further ado, here are my uninvited suggestions to my city and other similar ones for making things as awesome as they should be:
- Get that hydraulic pavement everywhere! Really, we have got to stop using cheap materials that wash away with the first rain to repair anything — what’s even the point? We’ve got some great homegrown “green” ideas as well. One other writer suggested that it’s about making sure there’s always work to do but honestly, I think there are enough needed repairs in this city to keep people busy for decades.
- If we’re going to have speed bumps everywhere, let’s at least make sure they stay painted so unsuspecting drivers slow down when they’re meant to rather than hitting the roof of their car as they rush over.
- We need big, easy-to-read signs indicating two things on every. single. block: the name of the street, and whether or not the street is one-way (once in a while I can’t tell, and have to wait until someone coming from the other direction yells and gestures at me).
- For goodness sake, let’s paint some lanes on our major roads — driving should involve as little guesswork as possible about where you should be.
- The stoplights need to be retimed based on current traffic patterns rather than the original ones from when they first went up.
- Designate a reasonable amount of parking. If we need more parking garages, we need more parking garages. The cars that are in the city aren’t going away, so it’s time to figure out a way to accommodate them.
Every neighborhood in this city knows what it needs: repaired roads, updated official signs, designated parking, repairs of lamp posts, safe places for kids to play. Let’s institutionalize neighborhood organizations that can report problems that need fixing, and even make suggestions for neighborhood beautification projects like more plants and trees or murals.
Experts and workers in the areas needed could be sent by the city to work with the people in the neighborhood, and it could double as a training program for those interested in urban development. A simple lunch could be offered to volunteers, and other benefits for the neighborhood — such as paint for the outside of people’s houses, or trees — could be tied to the number of volunteers that participate.
The real test will be upkeep. And if things aren’t going to be done well the first time around, all we’re doing is throwing money away, anyway. As a friend recently said, “Xalapa has stayed in the 90s.” What he meant is that not a lot of serious updating has been done to the city’s infrastructure since then, and I think he’s right.
Convivencia (coexistence) and participation in civic life is already built into the culture. It’s time to take advantage of that for the betterment of our cities.
Sarah DeVries writes from her home in Xalapa, Veracruz.