Which lasts longer, a 1920s bridge or a 2016 tattoo?
SECOND IN A SERIES
The Morrison Bridge roadway is being replaced just five years after it was completed, because a new material ended up not as durable as hoped.
Bridges are full of object lessons about durability, says Multnomah County spokesman Mike Pullen, who has become something of an expert on the topic. In the 1920s, he says, Multnomah County passed a bond measure to build three new bridges Burnside, Ross Island and Sellwood. Ross Island and Burnside were built first and went way over budget, mainly due to the huge amount of steel used to reinforce the bridges.
When it came time to build the Sellwood Bridge, there wasnt much money left, Pullen says, so less steel was used. Guess which of the three bridges is being replaced 90 years later: Sellwood.
Though its little solace to todays taxpayers, Pullen reports that the contractor responsible for leaving so little for the Sellwood Bridge construction went to jail and three county commissioners were recalled because of the boondoggle.
Some things beyond cars last longer than they used to, according to University of Oregon Sustainability Director Steve Mital. Last time I looked, the quality of tattoos has improved, Mital says.
Its true, says Mary Jane Haake, one of Portlands best-known tattoo artists. Haake has been inking bodies for almost 40 years, and she says the ink used today is more concentrated, purer and more durable. There is one exception, however. Haake says that China has started producing cheap knockoff ink that doesnt retain its vibrancy well at all.
A tattoo, Mital points out, is beyond an avatar, so its no surprise that quality wins out. Once you have it, you have it for life, he says.
Mital says many modern bikes are better-made than their predecessors from several decades ago. Hes a bike commuter and his 1991 frame is holding up just fine. And he thinks the YouTube do-it-yourself repair videos that get hundreds of thousands of hits are evidence that people want to keep their appliances rather than simply continue to buy new ones.
But Mital says mostly consumers are at fault for the lack of durability in merchandise today. Thrift, he says, was once considered a major virtue and it no longer is. Domestic labor the repair person is expensive. Overseas labor the person making the appliances is cheap. People are willing to buy new appliances with new features they may or may not need, so manufacturers supply them.
Built to last
Tara Button isnt buying into the idea that consumers are at fault for all the junk we buy. In fact, Button isnt buying much at all these days.
A few years ago, Button, an advertising scriptwriter who lives in London, was given a Le Creuset pot for her birthday. The high-end kitchenware came with a lifetime guarantee and a revelation.
I thought if everything I owned was like this, I could just take (buying) possessions off my list of things to do, she says. To say nothing of the money she would save in the long run, or the smaller environmental footprint she would be putting down.
One thing led to another and Button started a website called BuyMeOnce.com, which promotes items such as tweezers with free lifetime sharpening, suitcases with genuine lifetime warranties and even a recent favorite, a New York City maker of a little black dress who will pay your local tailor for any repair the dress needs as long as you own it.
I think its hard for consumers, Button says. Theyre not given a huge amount of information. If you go into a store and you want to buy a kettle, how do you know which kettle is going to last longer?
Button has started an online petition that would require manufacturers to certify how long their products will last. As an incentive to manufacturers, shes thinking a company like hers could offer a stamp or seal of approval on products built to last which could help them sell more product, much like the Good Housekeeping seal of approval did in decades past.
You wont find a single dishwasher recommended on the Buy Me Once website. Button cant find any that qualify. The same goes for other large household appliances.
Its a mess, she says of appliances, including the supposedly high-end brands. Its a massive scandal and we should be much angrier about it than we are ... The trouble is theyve all brought their standards down. Its a systematic degrading of their products so they last a really short time.
Button says if a manufacturer were to make a dishwasher with a lifetime guarantee of 25 years, people would buy it even at twice the price of the current models for sale.
I know. I have the audience. Ive had a million people come to my website saying this is what we want, she says.
Ever set foot on the Appian Way? Portland Community College engineering instructor and asphalt expert Todd Sanders has. The Appian Way in Italy is the ancient road the Romans built 2,300 years ago, and its heavy paving stones are still intact in many places.
Guess what those stones dont have? Potholes. Here we are in the 21st century and we still dont have asphalt that doesnt pothole. But we cant blame the asphalt, Sanders insists.
Todays asphalt is much longer-lasting than the asphalt of 100 years ago, he says. But the stress on todays roads, from heavier and more numerous vehicles, takes more of a toll.
The heaviest thing that was on any road in Italy was the weight of a horse and a cart, Sanders says.
Ever the engineer, Sanders blames people rather than materials.
(Potholes) have nothing to do with the road and everything to do with the people on the road, he says. Asphalt gets a bad reputation. Millions of miles of asphalt perform perfectly every day. It is when a little 2-square-foot patch fails that everyone gets upset.
Except there are a lot of those 2-square-foot patches along, say Northwest 23rd Avenue, which has old trolley tracks beneath much of its road bed.
Its about return on investment, Sanders says. We could invest enough resources and invent a pothole-free surface, but the cost would be so high. Its just not worth the return on investment ... filling a pothole isnt that expensive compared to digging up the trolley tracks.
Thats right, says Portland Bureau of Transportation Senior Engineer Michael Magee. It costs the city about $250,000 and two days to repave one lane of one mile of city street. The expectation is that the street will need new asphalt in five to 10 years. Digging up the entire roadbed to remove old tracks and cobblestone costs $2 million to $4 million per mile of lane.
Digging is what the city did six years ago on the southern half of Northwest 23rd Avenue, and there isnt money left to dig up the road bed on the heavily potholed remainder of 23rd, between Lovejoy and Thurman Streets, according to city officials.
Magee says the city recently laid down a lane of West Burnside Street near Powells Books with an experimental asphalt imbedded with Kevlar fibers that should increase durability. A traditional asphalt lane runs right next to it. Maybe the new asphalt will last much longer and resist potholes.
We wont know for years, Magee says.
Even though hes an asphalt apologist, Sanders admits hes excited about a new product from the Netherlands that promises pothole-free streets. Its a supposedly maintenance-free plastic road thats hollow beneath the surface, so water gets whisked away and utility lines and cables can easily be snaked where they need to go without the road being torn up a feature Sanders calls brilliant.
Alas, Sanders says the new plastic road will need to undergo about a decade of testing before it can be rolled out for general use. Any cities that try to use the product before it has proven its durability on test roads, according to Sanders, could regret jumping the gun.
Like the Morrison Bridge, he says.