The Pothole on the Side of the Road: Thoughts on the Immanent Materialty of Cycling

Posted by on Nov 22, 2018
The Pothole on the Side of the Road: Thoughts on the Immanent Materialty of Cycling

In a blog post I published a few weeks back I discussed the importance of inhabiting Houston’s streets as pedestrians and cyclists and reflected on the “wastelanding” of places, and the people who inhabit them, which occurs as a result of hegemonic mobile-privatization. Somewhat Ironically, that post only made passing reference to the actual experience of navigating Houston’s petro-mobile grid without the aid of a motorized vehicle. As scholars of place studies, such as Eve Tuck and Marcia McKenzie remind us, regardless of how inhabited areas are infrastructurally and socially calibrated, there will always be multiple postures of being adopted by those living within, and moving through, those spaces. As such, individual and collective daily lives” have the power to “influence place through the social practices we maintain, support, resist, and build. This includes our interactions with material aspects of the world such as what we literally mow, plant, dismantle, obstruct, build, walk around, or walk through.” (Tuck and McKenzie, 33). If one is to take such claims seriously, then it is important to reflect on the materiality, the tactility, of movement itself. For those who traverse Houston’s streets, either by foot or by bike, either by necessity or choice, how does that experience register on a material level and what kinds of awareness can it foster? Moreover, how might these modes of awareness be significant on an ecological level? With these questions in mind, I would like to posit one feature of my daily commute as a template for further contemplation.

I will start with a truism: Houston’s roads have a lot of potholes. And it’s not just potholes. Houston’s roads—and the sidewalks which intermittently accompany them—are so buckled and folded, creased and pitted with such consistent irregularity, that cycling upon them is a fundamentally erratic exercise. Allowing your thoughts to drift for even a moment results in yet another jolting thud which you may or may not have avoided had you been paying closer attention. By necessity, cycling in Houston is a full-bodied experience, where, both mentally and physically, you are constantly required to register the materiality of the road. However, it is worth reflecting on why Houston’s roadways are so difficult to maintain and what this might tell us about the potential for certain forms of movement to foster modes of ecological awareness.

The condition of Houston’s roads is by no means solely a result of infrastructural neglect; indeed, one of the primary obstacles standing between work crews and a city of pristine driving surfaces is the topography of Houston itself. As one Houston Chronicle article succinctly puts it, “you try paving over a swamp and see how long your roadway lasts” (Baddour). The wetlands that much of Houston was built upon have not gone away, they are simply under a layer of concrete, and a primary feature of this kind of terrain is a clay sediment which, when wet, “swells like a soaked sponge,” and when dry, “cracks and crumbles” (Baddour). As the clay underneath the roads shifts, so do the roads themselves; given the amount of rain that Houston receives during even a mild flooding year, it is no surprise that keeping up with road maintenance is an insurmountable task.

So, whilst more could doubtless be done to the tackle the problem, it is safe to say that road surfaces in the Bayou City will never be without flaws. Within the context of this reality, I would like to make an admission: there are times, as a cyclist, that I enjoy these flaws. More-often-than-not I find the flaws frustrating or uncomfortable, occasionally I find them terrifying, but there are other moments when a uniquely aesthetic experience is presented to me, emerging out of, or framed by, the unique textures of Houstonian cycling. There is one particular intersection, at which I am frequently required to stop, that speaks to precisely this ambiguity. Hugging the side of the road, one foot on the sidewalk, I try to leave enough room for right-turning cars. Positioned in this way I have a clear view into a particularly well-worn hollow in the road. Imbedded that hollow, ground into it by years of hasty roadworks and indifferent tires, is a collage of bolts and washers, scrap-metal and general detritus that I find it strangely charming. On a bright day it glints in the sunlight; every time I look at it I see something new. Under the recalibrating influence of paved-over wetland soil, this pocket of Houston roadway tells the story of its own cyclical process of use, rupture, and repair, both absorbing and re-presenting the sloughed off paraphernalia of petromodernity. But this is also the story of the expansive clay soil beneath the road, the soil which refuses to go away, and which, try as we might, will never allow for flat, pristine surfaces.

As Neil Campbell and others have argued, “the grid” is one of the primary “organizing principle(s) for settlement” in the United States. Grids frame and “enclose,” but they can also just as easily become “‘deframed’ by forces from the outside as well as those simultaneously exploding outward from the inside and pointing beyond its restrictive space” (Campbell 9, 12). The creases and pockets of Houston’s roadways, such as the one described above, provide examples of just such a “deframing,” where the “bedrock” of the grid refuses to cooperate, issuing forth afunctional, curiously appealing reminders of use, of terrain, topography, and place. From an ecological perspective, such moments of de-framing are of acute significance as a they remind us of the clumsy violence required to maintain our current way of life and of the stubborn omnipresence of a dynamic and uncontainable non-human world. In the case of Houston, the sinking and buckling of paved surfaces also serves as a reminder of a more widespread and more catastrophic sinking, the subsidence on the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coasts which, as Stephanie LeMenager reminds us, “results from oil mining in wetlands and in the Gulf itself…from…sea level rise and new climate features, such as superstorms” (102). Arguably, all of this can be “read” in that one depression in the road where I stop most days; indeed, it has been my positioning at the side of the road which has allowed for this particular encounter with the materiality of my surroundings in all of their sedimentary imminence.

In a car one can ignore all but the largest potholes, the most glaring aesthetic aberrations, but by placing oneself on the ground an enhanced degree of receptivity becomes inevitable. Commenting on Kathleen Stewart’s text, A Space on the Side of the Road, Neil Campbell describes how “the side of the road” can be an area which speaks to the “generativity of ordinary life,” where “the immediacy of the world’s object, subjects, atmospheres…form the larger entities of ‘worldings’” (Campbell 106-107). Whilst Stewart works with “the side of the road” in a fairly ambiguous sense, I want to argue that the actual act of occupying the side of the road—an inevitability of road cycling—has the potential to open oneself up to the generative materiality of seemingly mundane surfaces. As such, it is important that we credit such actions, not only with ability to reduce carbon emissions, but also with the potential for new modes of awareness and the induction of necessary ecological worldings. In this respect, cycling constitutes a key form of opposition to the “wastelanding” impulses of mobile-privatization.

 

Works Cited

Burch, Paul. “Reflections on Disposability, ‘Mobile Privatization,’ and the ‘Wastelanding’ of Houston’s    Streets.” Culturesofenergy.com, Rice University, 1 Nov. 2018,

Baddour, Dylan. “Explained: Why the Roads in Houston Are so Bad.” Houston Chronicle, 9 Aug. 2016, www.houstonchronicle.com/local/explainer/article/Explained-why-the-roads-in-Houston-are-so-bad-9131932.php

Campbell, Neil. Affective Critical Regionality. Rowman & Littlefield International, 2016.

Campbell, Neil. The Rhizomatic West: Representing the American West in a Transnational, Global, Media Age. University of Nebraska Press, 2009.

LeMenager, Stephanie. Living Oil: Petroleum Culture in the American Century. Oxford University Press, 2016.

Stewart, Kathleen. A Space on the Side of the Road: Cultural Poetics in an “Other” America. Princeton University Press, 1996.

Tuck, Eve, and Marcia McKenzie. Place in Research: Theory, Methodology, and Methods. Routledge, 2016.