I love Winnipeg (well, most of the time). I’ve lived here for 11 years (the longest I’ve ever lived in one place) and I enjoy many of the great things the city has to offer.
But one thing I hate are Winnipeg’s potholes.
WINNIPEG POTHOLES ARE MIND-BOGGINGLY BAD
They are terrible. Even a simple trip to the grocery store feels like an offroad journey as you slalom between the worse ones and hope your car holds together.
Each year, the provincial insurer Manitoba Public Insurance receives over 1000 claims for vehicle damage caused by Winnipeg potholes and the city spends $2.6 million a year on pothole repair.
I’ve been told that it has to do with a number of factors combined together:
- The typical factor of water seeping into cracks and then freezing and lifting the section of roadway.
- Our extreme weather: Our temperature swings are dramatic — reaching 40 C (104 F) in the summer and -40 C (-40 F) in the winter.
- Winnipeg is built on clay, which has a lot of movement, sort of the way Jell-O undulates in a bowl.
One of our local newspapers has a page called “The Pothole Locator” where you can watch for potholes on a map, although every street has them so it’s impossible to avoid them on a trip.
They are also a danger to safe and predictable driving. Cars swerve or brake suddenly and that reduces predictability to other cars around them, and unpredictability is a factor in collisions. And recently I was driving through a rainstorm and a bit of water on the road turned out to be hiding a huge pothole (I was driving in the next lane so I didn’t hit the pothole but the car beside me did and sent a cascade of water onto my windshield).
And aside from the vehicular damage and safety, there’s the aesthetic issue. They’re unsightly, which makes them embarrassing to Winnipeggers, and they make the city less attractive to visitors.
WHAT’S BEING DONE ABOUT THESE POTHOLES?
So what’s being done about them? According to the city, the $2.6 million a year for pothole repairs are spent in three ways:
- Temporary repair
- Semi-permanent repair
- Permanent repair
Although it’s a little puzzling to me why they would ever use temporary repair, apparently it’s useful in cold weather as a stop-gap measure to maintain the road surface, presumably until warmer weather arrives.
If you want to get into the details of how potholes and patching are done, this is a helpful PDF from South Africa’s Council For Scientific And Industrial Research about pothole repair. (Note: South Africa has a very different climate and soil structure so that’s worth remembering as you read this. Nonetheless, it’s a good primer on understanding the basics of pothole repair).
In spite of the millions of dollars and the city workers’ tireless work devoted to repairing potholes, the entire effort feels futile: While one pothole is being patched, dozens more are being created. It’s like bailing water on the Titanic with a teacup.
I don’t believe we can continue with the “same-as-we’ve-always-done-it” approach. Costs are rising and potholes continue to appear faster than we can repair them. With this approach, the only way we can have a meaningful impact is to invest A LOT of money to continue doing what we’ve always done — hire more crews and machines and patching compound.
OTHER APPROACHES TO POTHOLES AND POTHOLE REPAIR
Recently, I’ve seen other approaches to pothole repair:
- Two cities (Chicago USA and Jyvaskyla Finland — both of which have similar climates to Winnipeg) have apparently turned some of their potholes into mosaics (although I’m not sure how much of this is a municipal approach versus the unapproved work of an artist.
- A British artist nicknamed “Wanksy” (which is hilarious by the way) has been drawing — ahem — male genitalia around each pothole to speed up their repair.
- I’ve seen a lot of fake pothole stories recently and it was suggested that they were put in place to get people to slow down, although deeper research into the story suggests that these fake potholes were actually an advertisement for a vehicle suspension provider.
- In Buffalo NY, there’s a “Mayor’s 48-hour pothole repair guarantee” which promises that all potholes will be repaired in 48 hours (weekends excluded, of course). I don’t think this is very practical here (our city’s phone lines would be overrun on day 1 of the program) but it’s an interesting consideration.
- In Quebec, a student has been exploring a way to use chicken feathers as a way to keep water from entering potholes. His initial research found that chicken feathers mixed into asphalt dramatically reduced the amount of water that would enter the seams to create potholes in the first place.
- Along similar lines to the chicken feather approach is to use our world’s accumulation of old tires to help repair roads. It looks like this method is being tested in various parts of the US (including California, Arizona, and Florida, according to this article). I saw some other information about Michigan roads that might be using/testing this approach but there was a problem with accessing the website when I tried linking to it. I like this approach because it uses an unwanted material that we know will be around for a long, long time and will continue to be supplied as long as people drive cars. (Although it’s curious that the most documented usage is in the warmer US states and I wonder if the warmth is a factor — i.e. will our roads become too brittle during cold weather?)
These are a few of the ways that people are innovating with pothole repair — with art, chicken feathers, old tires — and even with potholes themselves (such as a way to speed up the repair).
There are a lot of potholes in Winnipeg. We spend a lot of money because of them (directly on pothole repair, and indirectly on insurance claims, damage repair, etc.)… and that’s ONLY on the potholes that get repaired or the damage that gets reported, which is only a fraction of the problem.
Fortunately, this presents us with an opportunity. There are many potholes in roads all over the world, and we’re certainly not the only city in an extreme environment or on unstable clay.
So here’s the opportunity I see for Winnipeg: I think Winnipeg needs to become the pothole repair capital of the world.
What I mean is: We need to become world-class innovators in how to repair and even prevent potholes. We need to create strategies, tools, and repair compounds/methodologies that allow us to repair potholes quickly and effectively while also reducing the number of potholes that appear on our roadways.
In the same way that Holland is thought of worldwide as the leader in land reclamation, Winnipeg needs to be the leader in pothole repair. We need to become THE city that people think of when they see potholes in the streets of cities around the world.
I propose two suggestions:
First, we need to establish a public/private Center for Pothole Repair (or maybe there’s a better title that includes the word “Infrastructure” since “Pothole” sounds so pedestrian). This needs to be a think tank/laboratory/research center for pothole repair. The organization might survive in the short term on government grants but once established, I believe it has the potential to earn money from international consultation work for municipalities that struggle with pothole repair. (Bonus idea: A pothole museum? haha… maybe that’s too much).
Second, the City of Winnipeg and Manitoba Public Insurance need to team up to put aside funds for a generous and attractive prize for whoever can repair potholes the best. By “the best” I imagine something like: quickly, even in the cold, within a specific cost-per-square-inch, and those repairs need to last for at least 24 months. Let’s say, for example, that the city and MPI each chip in $1 million. For the short term, that might seem like a lot, but since they’ll only spend it once for a winner, and if that winner can save each organization several hundred thousand a year in repairs/claims payouts then it will quickly pay for itself.
Winnipeg has a reputation issue… and one that reaches far beyond our terrible roads. Turning us into the pothole repair capital of the world won’t fix our reputation or attract more tourists in the short term but it will provide many benefits to the city and to the province: It will create safer, friendlier roads that we can be proud of, and that will free up money for the city and for MPI to spend elsewhere.
The current approach isn’t working. We need a completely new approach and this new approach can create a significant opportunity for the city, and can contribute to the city’s improvement.
I don’t think it will take a lot of time, money, or effort. We already have everything we need — we certainly have thousands of kilometers of asphalt research labs — now we just need someone with some boldness and innovative thinking to put it all in place.