Potholes in Edmonton

Every year the City of Edmonton spends a few million dollars to fill a few hundred thousand potholes. Are potholes just a fact of life, or can we do something about them? I think the latter. It’s time for a more sophisticated and creative discussion about potholes in Edmonton!

Pothole photo by More Bike Lanes Please

We hear the same thing every year. As spring approaches, dozens of stories are published about Edmonton’s pothole problem. We hear all about the freeze/thaw cycle of the winter and that’s why the potholes are bad. We hear that the City has crews out all the time fixing potholes, on average about 400,000 per year. We hear that a lot of money is being spent on the problem!

Here’s what Mayor Mandel said a few weeks ago:

“If you look at this winter — we’ve had freezing and thawing, freezing and thawing way more than any other year,” said Mandel, “and we have had a little more snow than normal. It creates havoc.”

“It’s not our intention to create a pothole … but it is a fact of life in our city,” said Mandel. “It will be there forever and we’ll never catch up.”

That sounds like a challenge!

I started digging into potholes, well figuratively anyway. I started with a series of questions, and then I just began researching. I went through old council minutes, I looked at City reports, I searched through old newspaper articles, etc. What was supposed to take a few hours turned into days! After a while I realized I had better stop and share what I had gathered, so that’s what you’ll find in this post.

Here’s a video for those of you in the TL;DR camp:

Here are some of the highlights of what I found:

  • Potholes form when water and traffic are present at the same time.
  • The City has filled more than 5.6 million potholes since 2000.
  • On average, the City fills about 433,000 potholes each year, with a budget of $3.5 million.
  • Annual pothole budgets have ranged from $1.5 million to $5.9 million since 1990, for a total of about $85 million (or $104 million adjusted for inflation).
  • Edmonton seems to fill twice as many potholes as any other large Canadian city.
  • The City maintains more than 4,600 kilometers of roads. The average quality of an arterial road is 6.1 out of 10, just below the industry standard. There is not enough funding in place to prevent this from falling.

There’s a lot more information in this PDF report that I’ve put together:

I put all of the data I gathered into an Excel document that you can download here. You’ll find some data in there that is incomplete – if you have the missing information, please let me know! If you use it to generate your own analysis, I’d love to learn from you so please share!

How can we solve the pothole problem in Edmonton? I don’t know. But doing the same thing over and over isn’t going to change anything either. Here are some ideas on how to make progress:

  1. Information is only useful if we can bring it together to turn it into knowledge. I’ve started to do some of that in the report above. In the absence of good data about weather patterns or traffic patterns, it’s easy to make assumptions. I feel as though I’ve only scratched the surface – there’s a lot more information that could be correlated to develop a better picture of the pothole problem.
  2. We need to make better use of the tools and expertise that we have in Edmonton. I’m thinking of tools like the Open Data Catalogue, for instance, and expertise like the transportation engineers and soil experts we have. Edmonton is one of the few cities that tracks the number of potholes filled, let alone makes that data available online, but we can do more! We also need to do a better job of harnessing the collective power of all Edmontonians for crowdsourcing ideas and data. Potholes don’t have to be just a transportation problem.
  3. There’s lots of interesting things happening elsewhere – Edmonton is not the only city that has to deal with potholes! What can we learn from others? There are self-heating roads, nanotechnology is being used to create crack-proof concrete, and all sorts of different polymers designed to make roads less brittle. How can we apply some of that knowledge?

What if we brought together engineers, scientists, designers, programmers, and other citizens for a one-day pothole unconference? What would they come up with? I think it’s an idea worth exploring.

Splash photo by Owen’s Law

I don’t think we’ll solve the pothole problem in Edmonton just by throwing more money at it, and we certainly won’t get anywhere with cheap gimmicks. Instead I think we need to get a bit more holistic and creative in our approach.

For now, I have two calls-to-action:

  1. If you’ve never reported a pothole using the City’s online form, give it a shot here. Don’t bother with forms or maps on other sites – use the official one.
  2. If you found anything in this post valuable, please share it with others.

Thanks for reading and happy pothole dodging!

19 thoughts on “Potholes in Edmonton

  1. I’ve rarely – if ever – seen potholes on highways, so why are they so much much better built than municipal arterial roads? If it’s purely cost, surely the up-front investment negates the long-term maintenance of patching/resurfacing every Spring?

    I read recently that sound may also play a factor – driving on a highway is louder than a city street. I would think most residents would be open to the trade-off of increased noise volume to the current situation, at least on Edmonton’s major arteries.

    1. That’s an interesting idea about sound, I haven’t come across that before. I did start to look at highway maintenance and potholes there, but that’s definitely an area that deserves more attention!

    2. Highways drain much better because generally there’s a huge great big ditch (or field) to the side of them. There’s very rarely standing water on highways where as in the city there’s always standing water because it can’t just drain to the sides and disapear.

  2. Good idea, but why stop at a one day conference to discuss the problem – why isn’t there a research institute at the U of A looking in to this? I’ve got to believe there are technical solutions to this (probably with material science but maybe with an army of robots that scour the City at night repairing potholes). Edmonton could be (should be) the world centre of excellence (not a very bad example) for roads in a northern climate.

    1. I hear you! We have the National Institute for Nanotechnology here too, it seems we could get them involved! My suggestion for a one day conference is just that we have to start somewhere 🙂

  3. Perhaps the abundance of potholes is being caused by the melt water sitting on the road due to lack of drainage. During the spring thaw, most city drains are still plugged with snow because the streets do not get plowed well enough to expose them. So the water sits and freezes at night and thaws during the day until the drain is clear.

    This would also explain why the highways do not suffer as badly, they are plowed all the way to the shoulder and graded to encourage water to run to the shoulder and not stand on the highway.

    1. I do think that’s part of the problem (that’s why I put the splash picture in). Walk down the street and you see further evidence that this contributes to the problem – there tend to be more potholes and other surface issues near the curbs. I think the grading of highways makes a big difference, for sure.

  4. I say this at risk of public mocking, but this photo here:

    reminded me of this awesome video I saw here:

    Disclaimer: I have absolutely no idea how much it would cost to pave a road with brick but I’ve never seen a brick road with potholes.

    Afterthought: Thanks to that picture above, I have now seen a pothole with a brick road underneath it.

    1. have you driven on brick/paved stones before? the surface is not as smooth and makes a significant amount of noise and vibration inside your car.

      Brick also takes a lot more work, mainly because each one needs to by layed individually, taking more workers to do, hence costing more money. Brick’s also take a lot more work to fix, compared to asphalt.

      When bricks shift and get packed down into ‘potholes’ you need to tear it all up, around the hole, and fix the base, and lay the bricks back. Where as with asphalt its basically just a patch job.

      Source: I do pour concrete, and do both asphalt, and paved stone driveways.

    2. Brick and cobblestone may have it’s challenges, but I think they let the water seep through. Perhaps looking at them we create a better product for our climate and environment . To me the bottom line has been the lack of proper snow removal and bad choice in paving practices..

  5. Loved the video. Currently, I am inside my mini cooper, just dropped into a pothole while driving home, and while waiting for rescue, read this post. I’ll be reporting it once I get out. This is the first time I am all in. There have been several other times this season where I did not see the pothole, and suddenly half of my car was in it. I have already reported those. I will continue. The research you have done, the time spent, and your three points to get started on solving this problem are so sensible and so simple, it is kind of scary. Particularly that no one on city council has made this kind of thoughtful proposal. I will look forward to getting through your research when I get home.
    Until then, and hoping no one else falls in here on top of me,

  6. It seems to me that the more we sprawl the more roads we’re dependent on and required to maintain…

    Perhaps Northern cities are less suited for this type of infrastructure. Ultimately, I would like to see a concerted effort to remove roads through urban densification, amazing public transit, walkable centres, and (god forbid) more bike lanes. Building roads makes us dependent on roads; better design is the solution.

  7. The problem with the online official form is that it doesnt create a work ticket automatically, it just transcribes an email to 311@Edmonton.ca for their call centre agents assigned to that day’s email inbox to make a ticket from, and emails are maaaany, so they do it at night or skip the tedious ones. Just call it in and get the SAP reference number (six digits), not the CRM number (the long one starting with 800_) then spam roadmaintainance@Edmonton.ca as man y times as necessary with the SAP work number you got till the work gets done.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s