Sunday, September 06, 2009

Learning an Italian lesson

Travelling in Italy last month I was struck by the state of their roads which contrast markedly with the condition of those in Britain as a whole and LeicesterShire in particular.

The Italians seem quite happy to let even the most major highways fall into serious disrepair with most carriageways pitted and potholed far worse than anything we ever experience here. In lots of ways it's not a great driving experience - it's noisy and uncomfortable - and, I guess like most foreign drivers arriving in Italy, my first reaction was to curse the authorities. Actually that wasn't my first reaction: my first reaction was to slow down. You don't have much choice. Add the state of the roads to the fact that Italian motorways have much sharper bends than their British counterparts, and you cannot feel safe driving quickly. I'm sure there are lots of benefits to driving more slowly, the most obvious being the opportunity to enjoy the stunning scenery through Tuscany and Umbria.

However, once I'd got over the initial shock and was more used to slower speeds, it made me wonder why we are so obsessed with potholes in this country. Every year, the Mercury runs stories about residents complaining about the state of the road where they live, councils run hotlines to allow potholes to be reported and, if memory serves me right, Leicestershire County Council proudly attempts to fix all potholes within 24 hours of them appearing. The city council, which is much slower to react to the complaints, finds itself under pressure and at least once in the past 12 months has had to find extra cash to resurface affected roads.

But why? What is the real problem with potholes? Wouldn't the cash be better spent elsewhere? There's no doubt that we spend many millions of pounds in Britain keeping our roads looking like Grand Prix tracks - why doesn't the council simply say: No. I know we'd all be up in arms at first, but isn't there an argument to be made? Wouldn't we get used to it? The Italians appear to have accepted it.

I don't suppose it will be long before the health and safety experts point out that potholes cause accidents (do they?), but wouldn't this be offset by the reduction in speed? Isn't this similar to the argument about allowing parking on narrow streets - there are those who say it makes the road dangerous, but it also slows down traffic, presumably making the streets safer. What ever happened to that experiment where a city (in Germany?) took away all street markings as they felt it would make drivers and pedestrians more aware of their surroundings and, therefore, contrary to popular belief, make the roads safer? Wasn't it the Scandinavians who started to make children's playgrounds a little less safe on the grounds that it taught children to be more alert and careful ... and, therefore, more safe?

I'm sure this argument has now deteriorated into a ramble - probably full of potholes and proving the point that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing - but is there a discussion to be had on deliberately allowing our roads to fall into disrepair?

And one of the things that I noticed that the Italians did seem to spend a lot of money on was preserving the character of their towns and cities. It was clear that lots of money had been spent on restoring and converting for modern use the ancient buildings of Todi, Assisi, Perugia, Rome, Siena, Venice et al.

I guess when it comes down to it, it's simply a matter of priorities. And we choose to spend our money on potholes.