Public-Private Folly

If they were all like this I wouldn’t mind so much

And one of the biggest such partnership plans touches close to my home: The Gort-Tuam motorway. Yes, you read me right. Those are the words I actually wrote down there. A motorway, from Gort to Tuam. We have built a lot of decent roads in this country in the last decade or so, and I’m sure they all stimulated a great deal of economic activity. We needed them, they were a good investment. But you see what’s happened now, don’t you?

We’ve run out of places to build motorways to.

What puzzles me is how the private partners can hope to make a return on a new faster route between two such non-urgent points. I can only think of one way: They build the motorway over the existing road, giving people who actually have to get from Gort to Tuam (poor benighted souls) little choice except to pay. This is a worrying precedent. If it continues, free roads all over the country will be paved over with new pay-roads; in some cases, right up to our doors (perhaps). This will have the effect of transferring immense amounts of money from the general population to a few wealthy investors, but apparently that is what governments are for now.

When you think about it though, these roads don’t have to make a profit. They don’t have to be completed even. All they have to do is create economic activity. You realise what that is, don’t you. We’ve had it before, during the Famine. Landlords who believed that free food created what the rich like to call a “moral hazard” gave their starving tenants pointless tasks to perform. Sometimes they’d build a mad monument to nothing, a tower in a valley maybe, a brand new ruin. Sometimes, it would be a road.

This is a whole new class of folly: Faster, wider, vastly more pointless. A Famine Freeway, if you will.

Sea To Ocean

We spent a lot on roads in this country. Probably more, with hindsight, than we really ought to have. So I can’t help feeling ungrateful when I don’t use them. Motorways – highways, autobahns, what you will – are convenient, sure. You can cruise along at 120k (75mph), faster than on ordinary roads. You can steer like you’re on rails. You can sleep.

No wait, not sleep. That’s the one you’re not supposed to do. But honestly, if they wanted you to drift off at the wheel this is exactly how they’d design roads. They’re so safe they’re dangerous.

I spent last night at a friend’s near Dundalk, close to the M1 that runs Dublin-Belfast. The M4 and M6 take you from Dublin to Galway, so I could have gone home entirely by motorway. The route makes a perfect right angle, but nevertheless it’s what the satnav recommends.

Edward J. Valentine's intriguing pub in Longford Town

I took the hypotenuse, the direct route across country via N-roads (national routes). At least, it would be direct if it didn’t wind like a bastard. These roads live from bend to bend, forcing you not only to concentrate on steering, but to change your speed and even gear constantly. Though it must be said that these have also been the object of serious investment in recent years, with accurate lines and chevron markers on every bend. Driving them is hard, but not particularly dangerous.

This is the only way to see the country – insofar as there is anything to see in the midlands. Not counting a (very necessary) break then, it took me four hours to get from the Irish Sea to the Atlantic coast. I could’ve done it in an hour less by motorway, but dammit, it would’ve felt longer.

Here’s some more pictures from the trip:

The most Zen front garden in all Ireland
Breakfast or something
Stuff on my friend's table - I just liked the colour combination

Diary Of A Frightened Man 5 – The Zone

Picture the scene. I’m doing a practice run with my driving instructor. I am a cat-bag of nerves, slopping adrenaline, making error after error. The lessons of the preceding ten months, the intense practice I’d done in the last weeks and days, are coming to nothing. I was forgetting to signal, forgetting my mirrors when stopping and turning, riding the clutch, coasting… The inattentive habits I’d worked like hell to eradicate were all back, all at once.

Nerves were making everything seem to happen too fast to control. Who can possibly look in a mirror, make the correct signal, look in another mirror, depress a clutch pedal, let up an accelerator, select the right gear, apply a little brake, let up the clutch pedal gently but not too slowly, steer, look in every possible direction for hazards, and pay attention to where you’re going all in the correct order and in such quick succession that you’re actually doing several of them at once? Ridiculous. It can’t be done. And that’s just one corner.

Then the heavens open. And not in the good way where divine providence looks down and beams me out of there. That I could’ve used. As in torrential rain. Torrential by Irish standards remember; a country where we say it’s fine if it’s only raining a bit. Some of you live places where weather like this would constitute a national emergency. Visibility was suddenly non-existent, the heater struggled to keep the windows demisted but succeeded only in making the car unbearable, conditions became hazardous and continued into ludicrous. I am dispirited. It’s not enough that I’m driving like a brain-damaged chicken, I now have to ford a flooded road to even reach the test centre.

I think to myself, I did not pick a good day to book a driving test.

So what happened next was quite weird. But it is what often happens in these situations. You could call it correct fear. Suddenly the adrenal glands stop being an impediment and start doing their job of maintaining my balance on the tightrope of concentration. All the hours of practice come back to me now. Instead of everything happening at once, there seems to be time to do it all. It’s… almost boring. Intense yet slow, like a black and white film. I’m no longer desperately worried about my driving test, because I’m doing my driving test. I’m in The Zone – one of those rare times when you live completely in the present.And in the present, there’s time for everything.

It was not perfect however. I made one mistake so bad that as soon as we were through the tester started giving me a hard time about it. My heart sank. And then it began to dawn on me that if I’d failed, he wouldn’t be bothering to give me a hard time about one mistake.

I am a driver now.

Diary Of A Frightened Man 1

view of a typical microsimulation 2D animation...
Oh God Help Me It's A Human-Crushing Machine

So my next driving test is heaving close and – what a surprise – I haven’t done half the work I need to. One week to get into shape. I suppose that’s about as feasible as getting into shape for anything else over one week.

OK I have been driving since the last try; virtually every day, and sometimes quite long distances. I just haven’t been test driving. So I’ve spent the last half an hour doing classic three-point turns, with the handbrake at each stop and the regulation distance from the kerb and all of that, just like they like. I’ve come to think of it as a kind of dressage – you know, that thing where they make horses behave like hovercraft. I’m a lot more comfortable with it now than I used to be. What I’m feeling weak on is road-reading, and having three or four fewer eyes than I really need.

I’ve been working on my manners too, letting people merge, smiling and waving, buying drinks. OK not the last one. This isn’t on the test, but my girlfriend is a much more experienced driver and she insists I start as I mean to go on – i.e., not like a bastard.

Don’t be worried or distressed then if I don’t write much of weight in the next week, as I spend more time behind wheels than keyboards. The Presidential election and the collapse of the world economy will have to continue without me. If you want to read the diary of a frightened man making hilarious mistakes however, stay tuned.

Today’s most egregious error: Attempting to leave a roundabout by a road that isn’t an exit.

Excuse: Whoever heard of a one-way street meeting a roundabout!? The town planners are insane.