Bumpy roads ahead: tackling potholes for a smoother and safer journey

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Potholes pose a serious safety hazard to motorists, motorcyclists, buses, and active travel users. Sudden and unexpected encounters with potholes can lead to accidents, especially if drivers swerve to avoid them or if the potholes cause loss of control. In addition, potholes can also adversely impact on congestion and disruptions in traffic flows across the network with drivers often slowing down or changing lanes abruptly to navigate around potholes. This often leads to an increase in congestion, longer commute times, and increased fuel consumption.

The RAC recently reported a concerning surge in pothole-related breakdowns, with their patrols attending nearly 30,000 incidents, representing a marked increase of 33% increase on the previous year. The RAC estimates that England’s roads currently harbour over a million potholes, highlighting a pervasive issue that affects the country’s transport network. On average, there are approximately six potholes per mile on roads under the jurisdiction of county and district councils in England and Wales, as per the RAC’s findings.

In addition, according to a newly formed Pothole Partnership; last year, pothole damage to vehicles cost a total of £474 million, with repairs needed on flat tyres, bent rims, suspension damage, and alignment issues, to name a few. This Partnership consisting of AA, National Motorcyclists Council, British Cycling, IAM RoadSmart, British Motorcyclists Federation, and JCB, introduced a five-point plan to address this fundamental issue.

For motorbikes, potholes and defects in road surfaces have been demonstrated to pose significant dangers. A pothole that might cause damage to a car could have life-threatening consequences for a motorcyclist. It is therefore essential that immediate action is undertaken to swiftly address the backlog of necessary repairs.

Potholes can have a considerable impact on active travel users as they pose a direct safety risk to pedestrians and cyclists. Uneven surfaces lead to trips and falls for pedestrians, while cyclists may lose control of their bikes or sustain injuries when navigating around (or through) potholes. Pothole-ridden paths and sidewalks reduce the accessibility of some routes for pedestrians and cyclists, which can be especially problematic for individuals with mobility challenges, as navigating uneven surfaces can be more difficult.

As a consequence, potholes on our paths and roads may discourage people from choosing active travel options altogether due to concerns about safety and inconvenience. This could lead to some individuals opting to favour the private car and other unsustainable modes of transport, even for shorter trips – thereby undermining our collective strive towards net zero.

In addition to the challenge posed to the active travel commuter, potholes can also affect the enjoyment of recreational activities such as jogging, running, and leisure cycling. Uneven surfaces can diminish the overall experience and safety of these activities and thereby have a negative impact on our communities’ health.

To promote and support active travel, it is crucial for Local Highways Authorities to address potholes through regular maintenance and repair programmes. Ensuring the safety and accessibility of paths and roads is essential for encouraging people to choose walking and cycling as viable and enjoyable modes of transportation.

To assist this, and responding to the surge in potholes, Cycling UK has introduced an updated version of its pothole reporting tool, Fill That Hole. The tool, initially launched in 2007, has seen nearly 200,000 potholes reported across the UK. Before Fill That Hole, reporting road defects was challenging, requiring individuals to identify the responsible Highway Authority for each road segment. The upgraded app simplifies the reporting process, functioning as a one-stop-shop accessible through a few taps on a mobile phone. The new version directly sends information to the relevant Highway Authority’s reporting system, addressing previous issues where Authorities occasionally did not accept reports. It is vital that such applications are promoted to the general public to ensure that potholes are addressed in a timely and effective manner.

To address these issues, regular maintenance and prompt repair of potholes are essential components of a well-functioning transport network system. Preventive measures, such as road resurfacing and maintenance programmes, can help minimise the occurrence and impact of potholes.

Pothole-ridden roads can contribute to a negative perception of the local infrastructure and government. Residents and visitors may view poorly maintained roads as a sign of neglect, affecting the overall image of a region. It is therefore incumbent on the Local Highways Authorities to maximise their efficiencies in the delivery of their maintenance programmes to ensure that there is continued investment within their area.

In 2023, Highways magazine reported that the backlog in local roads maintenance for England and Wales reached a record £14 billion, marking an 11% increase. The gap between current funding levels for road maintenance and the necessary amount to prevent further deterioration surged by 20%. Highways Authorities estimated that, even with adequate funding and resources, it would take approximately 11 years to restore local roads to a reasonably stable condition. Despite preventative measures like resurfacing being 20 times more cost-effective per square metre compared to reactive work such as patching potholes, the average resurfacing frequency for all types of roads is an astonishingly infrequent every 116 years.

In order to address some of our pothole-ridden network, on 4 October 2023, the government announced £8.3 billion of additional highways maintenance funding over the period 2023 to 2024 and the next 10 years for local road resurfacing and wider maintenance activity on the local highway network. However, this is a drop in the ocean-sized pothole. Local Highways Authorities need an increased allocation and a commitment from government for a longer-term funding settlement. This would provide clarity for Authorities and enable them to plan more effectively in the short-, medium- and longer-term. The certainty afforded by five-year funding awards would align Local Highways Authorities with National Highways so that they can develop resurfacing programmes and other highways improvements.

With 2024 likely to be an election year, the allocation of resources becomes a crucial consideration for the national government in shaping fiscal policies and its overarching objectives. The strength of argument by the Local Government Association is compelling and the need to invest in our failing infrastructure is essential. The transport sector (and Local Highway Authorities in particular) anxiously anticipates the outcomes of the upcoming Spring budget, recognising the pivotal role it plays in addressing these pressing concerns.

Tim Bellamy is the Acting Assistant Director – Transport at Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Combined Authority

Tim originally published this article on LinkedIn on 1st February 2024  

Feature Image Source: Marc-Olivier Jodoin on Unsplash

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