Look At Life: Potholes

14th July 2017

On Why The Way We Build Roads…Is Just Full of Holes

By Heather Harris

If potholes are driving you round the bend (and often up the verge too), it’s the Romans you should be blaming. If we could only go back 3,000 years and reduce the cost of clay, we wouldn’t be in this predicament now. Towards the end of the Roman era, a heavy layer of clay was laid on top of the stone- and lime-filled roads to strengthen them, so that they could cope with the early morning chariot rush hour. Almost at once, potters spotted an opportunity, dug into the road and stole the clay to make their latest crockery range. And so the term ‘pothole’ was born.

Today, though, craftspeople are in the clear, and it is a deadly combination of water and traffic that’s making a huge dent in the Treasury budget and the population’s tyres. Basically, water weakens the soil beneath the road, so, as traffic passes over it, the weight stresses the surface past the breaking point and it – and our resulting tempers – crack.

For cyclists these unexpected hazards can have far more serious consequences. More than one death has, tragically, been caused by potholes throwing riders off their bikes, and the potential for accidents as drivers swerve to avoid distressed concrete or asphalt is immense.

These ‘structural damages to the road surfaces ranging from a few inches to several feet’ (official definition) have now become a problem of cavernous proportions. Recent reports suggest that it would take the UK 14 years to fix all the craters in our highways and byways. The Local Government Association’s transport spokesman admits that our roads are deteriorating fast. “It would cost almost £12billion, and it could be nearly 2030, before we could bring them up to scratch and clear the current roads repair backlog.”

At current maintenance levels, the average frequency for a road to be resurfaced in England is once every 54 years. In Wales, it is once every 107 years.

But all is not lost – there is a way out of this hole. As many as one in ten mechanical failures on UK roads may be caused by pothole problems, costing motorists an estimated £730 million every year in axle, suspension, tyre and wheel damage – but, thanks to websites such as potholes.co.uk (who dug up that statistic) motorists can be advised how to make a claim against their local council. Last year authorities paid out more than £30 million in compensation claims, the most substantial being the £5,000 paid to pensioner Ken Jones, 89, who took Cheshire East Council to a small claims court over the damage caused to his Mercedes.

Meanwhile, fillthathole.org.uk, set up by Cycling UK, has tried to smooth the way by publicising a league table of ‘top pothole repairers’ (based on speed of fill-in following initial report). Balancing proudly at the top of the pile is Durham, and, in fact, the top ten is dominated by the north. Herts is a precarious 160th, Bucks 180th and Transport for London is sinking fast in 190th place. There are only 214 on the list.

Alternatively, we could all adopt a more ‘holistic’ approach. Gardener Steve Wheen has transformed 150 of London’s potholes into mini gardens – the smallest being just an inch square – ranging from a one foot tall mini-Christmas tree sprouting from a snowy pothole to an iconic telephone box and a Mini Cooper car rising from a compost-filled cavern. “People often think I’m protesting about the state of the roads,” says Steve, “but in fact it’s all about making people smile and giving them an unexpected moment of happiness.”

That’s has been most people’s reaction when they drive over and past the work of an anonymous Manchester graffiti artist, who has worked out that if he draws male genitalia around the potholes of Bury and Ramsbottom the red-faced council will soon fill them in. “I just want to make people smile and draw attention to the problem and make it memorable. It seems to be working!” he says.

Meanwhile, over in Nottingham, the people on Main Road in Plumtree, decided to present their local pothole with a chocolate cake, complete with candles, to mark the offending road hazard’s second birthday. It was April Fool’s Day, to be fair, but the sentiment was serious enough. And at a time when Brexit and Syria were dominating the news, the Plumtree pothole and its birthday celebrations gained headlines around the world. One American commentator even hailed it as ‘the most British protest in history’ – an accolade of which Julius Caesar himself would surely be proud.

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