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
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
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!