Maddening roadworks set to tear up inner city
They have scant regard for traffic lights, they just amble through. They devour bus and cycle lanes, and annoyingly turn left without signalling. They are colour-blind to double yellow and red lines. They never pay parking meters yet they hog spaces all day.
What are they? Roadworks. The perennial bugbear of city dwellers and motorists the world over.
In London it's no different. If anything, it's worse; the capital's ever-growing population putting an ever-greater stress on its creaking, rusting infrastructure. Don't even mention modern digs brought by broadband, cable or speed humps.
My road in Hackney, a busy junction, has been dug up about 20 times in five years, the drills and shovels at 7am adding an urban ensemble to the more genteel dawn chorus. But Copenhagen Street in nearby Islington, north London, holds the record - it has been dug up 375 times in five years.
Copenhagen Street apart, London seems awash with more roadworks than usual - or more precisely, 'Thames Water mains replacement works'. The privatised utility's blue and white corporate boards herald a trail of orange barriers, red and white cones, and hard plastic grates covering temporary trenches, usually snaking down a street. It takes about two weeks to cut 100 metres of trench and then fill it in again, leaving a thin trail of new, dark tarmac.
All this makes living, driving and cycling in busy central London even more of an assault course. Soon, however, it's going to get worse. Much worse. Or in Thames Water PR speak: 'more visible'.
'We are managing to keep disruption down to a minimum,' said a spokeswoman for Thames Water, Britain's largest water utility which supplies 8 million Londoners with drinking water and treats 13 million people's sewage.
'But soon we are going to be digging up more central parts and that will be a highly visible undertaking.'
A rather contrite Thames Water has just embarked on the biggest series of single utility roadworks for years, hoping to replace by 2010 some 1,770km of ancient and leaking water mains.
Contrite? Well, Thames missed its leak reduction targets three years in a row while amassing steeper profits (Thames netted #346 million, or HK$5.33 billion, in 2005-2006) and raising prices.
All this as leaks grew to about one-third of the generated water supply.
Some 894 million litres of water escaped the mains in 2005-2006, enough to fill 350 Olympic-sized swimming pools. At the same time, however, Thames successfully applied for drought restrictions over the recent hot, dry summers. The outcry brought in the regulator.
Rather than dish out a #50 million fine, the Water Services Regulation Authority allowed Thames to commit to #150 million of remedial repairs over five years, the results of which are now popping up, or rather digging in, all over London.
Even now, there may be a modicum of sympathy for Thames Water. Its mandate involves 16,000km of geriatric water mains, half of which were laid in late Victorian times. And its acidic clay soil eats away at iron like robot ants. Add heavier traffic and a population set to grow by 800,000 in 10 years to the mix and therein lies the problem.
To its credit, Thames has won plaudits for its consultation about the works. There have been few complaints and few can be surprised when their street is dug up.
Being Londoners, however, few seem to have noticed the waterworks. They may soon. St Paul's Cathedral, a major traffic island, will once again be encircled. And this month work starts in the congested, narrow streets of Soho and the West End, with theatres and bars soon to be surrounded by some 65km of barriers and trenches.
It is a measure of the task ahead that the work will save but 5 million litres of leaking water.
Or two Olympic-sized pools. If not a drop in the ocean, then at least in the Thames.