Roads to ruin: the problem of potholes

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CTC Campaigns and Policy Coordinator Chris Peck explains why UK roads are so bad
Potholes aren't usually quite as large as this one
Potholes aren't usually quite as large as this one

The hole truth

Why are our roads so poor for cycling when compared with our European counterparts? Blame has been pinned on recent winters and the periods of very cold weather and heavy snow that had become rare in many parts of the country. Given that our European neighbours had the same (or worse) winters, it seems more likely that the weather simply exposed an inherent weakness in our roads.

Over half of all local authority highway spending goes on road maintenance amounting to an eye-watering £2.3bn in England alone last year. The Audit Commission found that although spending in cash terms has risen by 73% since 2000, inflation in the industry (mainly due to the soaring cost of raw materials) has outpaced this – meaning that there has been no increase in purchasing power. Yet volumes of traffic and vehicle weight have both grown, increasing road damage.

One concern expressed by some figures in the road maintenance industry has been that with reduced resources councils have been spending more and more on expensive emergency repairs rather than longer term maintenance, resulting in a downward spiral of neglect and expensive, remedial repair. This has occurred despite some local authorities changing the definition of ‘pothole’. Defects now have to be 40 mm deep before action is taken, compared with a much tougher 25 mm that was used in some places until recently.

Councils are currently supposed to fix dangerous hazards within 24 hours. Some local authority engineers suggest it would be more cost effective waiting for high quality permanent solution rather than a temporary dump of asphalt. This may mean potholes lying unfixed for longer, which increases the council’s liability if injury or damage to property occurs – and people cycling are more likely to suffer from potholes than those in cars.

Cyclists are also particularly disadvantaged because the types of roads we use the most have seen the greatest decline in maintenance standards. 37% of cars mileage is done on minor roads, compared to 82% of cycle mileage, but major roads are deemed to be more important and have received higher priority in maintenance planning, leaving our lanes and cycle paths to crumble. Minor roads or cycle paths are inspected once a year or less, compared with once a month on the busiest road networks. A defect that appears on a country lane could – if not reported using – remain there for many months before the local authority even noticed it.

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