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Oakland potholes

Addressing ‘a never-ending flow of potholes that sort of keep reappearing’ on Oakland’s streets

on July 5, 2022

Driving in Oakland can sometimes feel like a video game, swerving around potholes to avoid a flat tire or damage to the undercarriage of your car. Potholes have become one of the few apolitical issues that everyone, besides maybe the tire repair shop, can get behind. 

“Potholes are an unnecessary added stress,” says Oakland resident Logan Marshall. Some are so deep, you can instantly pop a tire driving over them, he added.  

Oakland potholes
A cyclist rides close to a pothole in Oakland in May 2022. (Semantha Norris)

According to a 2019 Metropolitan Transportation Commission report, Oakland has a Pavement Conditions Index rating of 53 out of 100, placing its streets among the worst in the Bay Area and in “at risk” standing. MTC defines at risk as, “pavements are deteriorated and require immediate attention including rehabilitative work. Ride quality is significantly inferior to better pavement categories.”

The city has made strides in recent years to counter the problem, including a bond issue to increase the number of streets repaved each year and a new method for determining which streets take priority. But potholes are a symptom of other underlying road issues such as water damage, temperature changes, and general wear and tear, which makes the problem an expensive one to address. 

Marshall spends hours every day driving through the city delivering food. In addition to rising gas prices, the lack of city infrastructure factors into his work expenses. He said he has spent hundreds of dollars on repairs for his vehicle.

“Potholes can cause a $200 to $300 expense to replace tires when we don’t have that money available as low-wage workers,” Marshall said.

Vignesh Swaminathan, president and CEO of Crossroad Lab, a transportation planning and engineering firm, used an East Oakland neighborhood as an example of the deeper problem. More commonly recognized by his 1.5 million TikTok followers as @mrbarricade, Swaminathan discussed how poor drainage in that neighborhood led to crumbling streets. He said that after a rainstorm, stagnant water erodes the asphalt, softens the dirt underneath, and leads to potholes. 

From 2009 to 2022, the number of pothole service requests filed through the city’s 311 line peaked in 2019, with a total of 5,767 requests. That is the year the Pothole Vigilantes took matters into their own hands. Frustrated with the pace at which the city was repairing streets, the group of anonymous Oakland residents began buying EZ Street asphalt and filling potholes in the middle of the night. The tagline on their website reads, “It would be great if the government did its job. Until then, we are here to fix Oakland’s streets.” 

The Vigilantes raised nearly $14,000 in donations in 2019. They used the money to purchase supplies they provided to anyone who wanted to fix potholes in their neighborhood. Although the Vigilantes made progress, there are limitations to what citizens can do. Unlike governments, they are not equipped to address such things as sinkholes and extensive street repaving.

The Vigilantes gained a lot of attention, and were even thanked by Mayor Libby Schaaf in a 2019 tweet about the city’s three-year $100 million paving plan

Progress has been made since that plan was implemented. According to a 2021 Oakland Department of Transportation news release, 28% of Oakland’s streets are now in good condition, up from just 15% in 2016. Additionally, the number of local streets in poor condition has declined for the first time in 10 years. 

In three years, the city has almost reached its goal to pave 125 miles, according to Jossie Ahrens, a transportation planner for the City of Oakland. That’s around four times the rate of paving from the prior decade, when the city only repaved about 100 miles in 10 years.

For OakDOT officials to adequately address the infrastructure needs, they conduct a survey every two to four years, resulting in the Pavement Condition Index. They then make a pavement plan based on such factors as street conditions, traffic and equity.

Pothole map
Pothole map

According to the index, a large portion of streets in poor condition are in the flatlands, which are historically underserved compared to their wealthy counterparts in the hills. In addition to being lower-income, flatlands neighborhoods are predominantly Black and brown. 

In the past, the city used service requests to determine which areas to prioritize for work — the more requests for a given street, the higher that street was prioritized. But it became clear that more affluent neighborhoods had a disproportionate number of service requests. Many people in lower-income communities may not have the time to submit requests or know how to navigate the system, and some may hit language barriers. The paving plan’s new methodology seeks to remedy that. 

Last December, the city adopted a new five-year paving plan to tackle another 350 miles of streets, with a budget of $60 million annually. Most of the money will come from Measure KK, an infrastructure bond approved by Oakland voters in 2016.

Oakland’s 2021-22 budget is about $2 billion, of which about 4% is allocated for transportation. In comparison, the Oakland Police Department has the largest share of the budget, with expenses more than quadruple that of OakDOT. 

Ahrens estimates it costs about $1 million to pave one mile. Without adequate funding, the infrastructure will continue to deteriorate. And service requests, despite dropping since 2019, still outpace repairs. 

“Our pothole team really is trying to plug a never-ending flow of potholes that sort of keep reappearing,” Ahrens said.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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