Photo by Wayan Vota on Flickr.
Each spring, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) tries to fill thousands of potholes around the city. This year, I put them to the test by biking around DC and reporting and tracking as many potholes as I could find. Most got filled, though some better than others.
DDOT announced last month that the agency had filled nearly 4,000 potholes during its fifth annual Potholepalooza initiative, a marked increase from previous years. Officials say they dispatched multiple crews, including 3 “pothole killer” trucks each day to make repairs.
Using 311 Online, I submitted 80 pothole service requests for 236 potholes during Potholepalooza. That’s nearly 10% of the 849 requests DDOT received. DDOT filled 177 of the potholes, or 75%. I was impressed with how quickly DDOT responded to me. In most cases, inspectors noted and sometimes filled the potholes I reported within 24 hours.
Of the 59 potholes that weren’t filled, most were on streets where I reported numerous potholes. It seemed DDOT picked and chose which ones to fill. In 2 places, on Ontario Street NW between Florida Avenue and Kalorama Road, and on Quebec Street NW next to Sidwell Friends, there were large groups of potholes that never got filled.
DDOT didn’t fill small or out of the way potholes
I also noticed and reported several potholes directly around manhole covers, but none of those got repaired. DDOT also avoided making repairs to potholes near ongoing road construction (where a lot of other, non-pothole gashes and ruts were present) and generally neglected to fill the smaller holes I reported. I would often report 5-10 potholes on the same rutty block and find that only the larger ones had been filled.
I also reported a number of potholes on Maine Avenue, Benning Road, East Capitol Street and Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway, but DDOT representatives told me that they weren’t under their jurisdiction, at least for repairing potholes.
The pothole fillers didn’t repair all potholes in the same way. For most potholes, they used a hot, black asphalt mix, but about half of the potholes I saw also had an additional layer of gray gravel that seemed to form a stronger bond. Meanwhile, a good portion of those filled with just asphalt have already become potholes again.
Unfortunately, when DDOT uses gravel to strengthen a pothole repair, they routinely leave excess gravel on the road. The bike lanes on Calvert Street NW between Adams Morgan and Woodley Park have been littered with excess gravel for several months as a result of numerous pothole repairs, many of which I reported. This creates an entirely new hazard to bikers that may be worse than the original potholes.
These inconveniences suggest that the Potholepalooza program is designed more for motorists than for cyclists. Small ruts and loose gravel are scarcely concerns for a 4,000 pound car, but present dangerous obstacles to a cyclist.
I noticed that DDOT were more likely to fill potholes in the middle of the street than those on the side. I reported over 20 potholes on 17th Street NW, just south of Pennsylvania Avenue. 14 of these were in car lanes and 6 were near curbs, where only bikes would ride. DDOT filled 13 of the 14 car lane holes and just 2 of 6 roadside holes, despite all of them being very near one another.
This is a small sample, but I saw the trend repeated across the city. If a pothole was small or in a location where cars don’t go, it was much more likely to stay a pothole.
Potholes got filled everywhere, but roads in affluent neighborhoods were worse
I wondered whether certain areas and neighborhoods would receive preferential treatment from service crews. Fortunately, this was not the case. After reporting at least a few potholes in every ward, but mostly in wards 1, 2, 3 and 5, I found no significant geographic differences in fill rates. DDOT filled roughly 3 out of every 4 potholes regardless of where they were.
However, I was surprised to find that some of the most affluent neighborhoods in Northwest DC seem to have the worst roads. Biking through areas like Petworth or Brookland, I seldom saw clusters of potholes and often went 15 minutes without seeing anything worth recording.
But I also found streets, like 34th Street in Cleveland Park or R Street in Georgetown, that looked like they’d been subjected to mortar practice. Downtown, 17th Street near Pennsylvania Avenue and N Street NW between 17th and 18th streets need serious help as well. These streets don’t just need their potholes filled, they need to be repaved completely.
When I first announced my project, several commenters said that filling individual potholes was frivolous in the face of larger bicycle and road quality concerns. And they’re right. Even if DC filled every pothole, there would still be many dangers for cyclists, like construction ditches, metal plates, or sewer grates. Filling potholes is inherently temporary, a series of Band-Aids on a chronically ill patient.
All that said, I did not bike around Washington for a month in search of potholes with any hope of seriously improving road conditions. I was more interested in the notion that an individual could make a small difference in the roads they used by reporting problems to the city. I wanted to see whether DDOT would really respond if I submitted hundreds of potholes. For the most part, they did.
It’s easy to complain about bad roads, but as it turns out, it’s almost as easy to report them. So the next time you’re on your bike and you see a big hole, you should tell the city. If you’re sick of a bumpy ride on a decaying street, you should report it. Odds are, DDOT might do something about it.