Potholes as Metaphor

June 8th, 2009 by Aaron

A couple of weeks ago my mom flew out to Winnipeg to spend some time with me. It had been about 9 years since her last visit to this city, and I was excited to show her what I know about Winnipeg as compared to what she may have experienced in the past. Thankfully the weather was amazing that week and not too many Winnipeggers felt the need to apologize after I told them my mom was visiting from out of town (although some mentioned that she had “come at the right time” and avoided the rain). She has two aunts here and we spent time visiting with those women whenever they were available and free from their busy schedules. Other than that, we visited many places around the city and—as visitors to Winnipeg are apt to do—we drove around a lot.

Since I moved here with a car, and was driving to school most days, one of the first things I noticed about Winnipeg was the quality of its roadways. While many people slag off Winnipeg for its seemingly ancient infrastructure, I will say that this city has perhaps the most active public works crews that I’ve ever encountered. On the dark and bitterly cold January nights when I first moved here I was surprised to hear, around the time I was going to sleep, the ice-scraping and snow removal trucks starting up for the night. I certainly don’t envy those men and women their jobs (having to work in that extreme cold and through the night), but I appreciated their efforts the next morning when the streets were cleared. Similarly, almost as soon as the sanding trucks and scrapers were disappearing from the city, I noticed the street-sweepers were hard at work beginning to clear away the layers of dirt, sand, and dust that had built-up all winter.

Now, it seems the city of Winnipeg embodies the popular Canadian cliché that there are only two seasons north of the 49th parallel: Winter and road construction. As a driver in the city you can’t avoid the crews working on street renewal or sub-surface infrastructure maintenance. These projects disrupt traffic, and are completely annoying; yet, they’re entirely necessary. Because I hope to avoid outright criticizing the city of Winnipeg and its public works (to be honest, I don’t know much about maintenance schedules, or how resources are spread throughout the city), I am willing to offer a more positive interpretation of the distress caused by summertime road construction: Potholes as Metaphor.

There are potholes everywhere in this city: whether you’re bounding up Henderson Highway in mid-April; slinking across Grant Avenue around 4:00PM on a weekday; or, bombing down Pembina on the way to the university. The potholes are a physical reminder of the damage a harsh winter can cause. In the spring, the potholes fill with water while it’s raining and then lie in waiting for unsuspecting drivers to underestimate their depth. I’ve winced, yelled, and shook an angry fist at the potholes around this city. I’ve gone so far as to complain to many non-Winnipeggers that damaged roadways—and the constant need for the city to be working on the roads—is the most frustrating aspect of life in Winnipeg.

The inverse, however, is that potholes demonstrate the willingness and necessity of Winnipeggers to build and rebuild their city year after year. Pothole-ravaged roads await repair while signalling the need to constantly renew municipal infrastructure. I believe Winnipeggers know their city more intimately than other Canadians due to their need to avoid large potholes while driving, which is then matched by a silent need to give thanks once those potholes are filled. Following the spring thaw (and occasionally throughout the winter) I noticed city crews repairing potholes as quickly and efficiently as possible – even in severely cold weather. I have even witnessed a strange looking vehicle that is both driven and operated by one worker: it sprays asphalt into small holes and cracks while still remaining in traffic. I suppose this eliminates the need to block off entire streets in order to address minor road repairs, however I would advise NOT driving next to one of these machines while it’s in use!

The potholes riddling Winnipeg streets are frustrating and may cause serious damage to vehicles. Likewise, the distraction and nuisance of constant road construction is something we’d all like to avoid. To defend my argument that potholes are a metaphor for change and renewal in the city of Winnipeg, I will offer a few more suggestions. Feel free to add to my thoughts, or dispute them in your own constructive way:
-Potholes remind Winnipeggers that nothing lasts forever.
-The depth of each pothole is the measure of the depth of a Winnipeggers’ patience.
-Potholes are the point of convergence between Mother Nature, Winnipeggers, and the City of Winnipeg.
-Potholes represent Winnipeggers’ need for less motor vehicle traffic.
-Potholes are a 20th century reminder of the idealism of this city – a city that humbly aspires to self-actualization through perseverance, determination, and road work.

6 Responses to “Potholes as Metaphor”

  1. Wow, that’s very deep. And a much better way of looking at it than just complaining.
    Because yes, there really are only 2 seasons around here. 🙂

  2. Norman says:

    I can only imagine what % of the municipal budget in Winnipeg (and all of our other CDN winter cities) is. In balmy Surrey (by comparison), roads are the #1 capital expenditure with parks being second.

    Judging by the far more intensive treatment necessary for road repairs in winter cities, I’m sure it must be a huge challenge to keep up with everything.

    I enjoyed the mental exercise of seeing potholes as a metaphor – well written. Looking forward to the next post 🙂

  3. Aaron says:

    Hi Princess…I am enjoying the lilacs of spring now that we finally have some spring! However, I think we’ve also had our fair share of rain so far, don’t you? I think we can’t help but complain sometimes, but focusing on the reality that filling potholes symbolizes urban restoration, can be comforting.

    Norman – I have no idea what this city spends on infrastructure improvements and road repairs. The price tag must be out of this world! I’m sure roads is up there, and I can only hope that parks is high on the list, too. Thanks for the encouragement! 🙂

  4. Mr. Nobody says:


  5. Alex says:

    How do other cities like Edmonton or Regina compare with roads? They experience very similar winters. I just moved here from Southern Ontario and agree on the rough roads. Back home we have no concrete roads, I wonder what the reason is for Winnipeg to mainly use the Concrete?

  6. MB says:

    A very elegant post!

    Was back in the Peg a few weeks ago. I think the roads are great! They are certainly better than Montreal’s (current home). Here, the sheer futility of road repair in MTL is apparent now there is a city policy that allows people to sue the city for car damage. When I am not swerving, I try to think of them as ‘traction’.

    I too wonder what the logic is behind concrete (more Wpg) and asphalt (more Mtl). Road engineers….please share.

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