Watching Potholes

Potholes on Hay Green Lane

At the end of last week I got an email from Cycling UK telling me it was their annual Pothole Watch this week. "That sounds exciting", I thought. So in celebration I reported with photographs all the potholes on Hay Green Lane between Mulberry Road and Bournville Lane (the screenshot maps my hard work).

A couple of weeks ago, whilst reporting other potholes, a report by someone else on fixmystreet.com that seemed entirely accurate to me caught my attention. It said:

Full of potholes

Reported via iOS in the Potholes category by Daniel shardlow at 20:03, Sat 31 October 2020

Sent to Birmingham City Council less than a minute later

The road is full of potholes all over the road and it’s near impossible to avoid them while driving

I don't often cycle this section of road, but I can tell you it's a very swervy ride, so I was pleased to see the report. Alas the follow up was:

Road is still full of potholes yet they claim they can’t find any issues

Posted by Daniel shardlow at 20:31, Sat 28 November 2020

Still open, via questionnaire

They are big potholes, tens of centimetres in diameter. Not something one can easily miss in any sense of the phrase, as the original poster said and I can confirm.

I know from experience that if you don't document each pothole thoroughly, no repair will be made. At best you'll get a message back to say they will "check the road at the next inspection", but even if they do, the road wont be repaired. So that's why I selected this section of road to report in detail. Sadly it does represent the state of many roads.

At the present time we are always hearing from flag-waving politicians about how exceptional is Britain. In terms of potholes, yes, we are exceptionally good compared with say, post-industrial Russia, but compared with Germany, which I have visited a lot, we are just unbelievably exceptionally bad. Whereas in Birmingham I will return from a ride with a phone full of pictures of potholes, I can literally cycle for many, many kilometres between road defects worthy of reporting. But being an infrastructure nerd, I do just happen to return from my rides with photos that include lots of asphalt. I've picked some of them out below (showing a variety of road classes), along with the only photos I have specifically of defects, so you can contrast and compare, and draw your own conclusions about whether the state of British infrastructure is reasonable or not. I want to emphasise that the photos I have presented are not cherry-picked; they depict normality. Slightly off-topic, certain British politicians like to tell us that Germany is a failing country. Looking at the state of the infrastructure in both countries, what do you think?

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Defective Road in Germany

Defective Road in Germany
I was riding along a lovely smooth country road in Germany one day, when I noticed the surface was decorated with hundreds and hundreds of hi-viz circles. After about thirty seconds of this, I could no longer resist my curiosity so I stopped to take a closer look. As far as I could tell, the road had recently been resurfaced, but the quality was not good enough for the inspector. In the centre of each circle there was a tiny defect. In a couple of places the defects were more obvious, but mostly it was these barely visible pits. The inspector probably decided this was not good enough because such pits trap water that in winter freezes and expands, damaging the asphalt and creating a pothole. Despite the much harsher winters, I almost never see any evidence of potholes in Germany. Patches are fairly rare, whilst actual holes are extremely rare. The attention to detail shown here probably explains that. Finally, if you're wondering why I'm barefoot (I included my foot for scale), it's because in the summer when I'm not on hostile infrastructure, I prefer to walk and cycle barefoot.

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A Minor Country Road in Germany

A Minor Country Road in Germany
The asphalt area is kept narrow, which reduces construction costs and makes it impossible for two motor vehicles to speed past each other. If two vehicles are approaching each other in opposite directions, both will have to pull off on to the gravel verge, something that can only be done at low speed. This makes rat-running down minor roads too slow and laborious to be worthwhile, so these roads are very quiet and excellent for cycling. Note the immaculate asphalt.

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A Residential Road in Germany

A Residential Road in Germany
Note how the red brick paths go straight across side roads, giving visual priority to cyclists and pedestrians. The path on the left is shared use, though motor traffic is almost non-existent, despite Germans owning more cars per head of population than the British. The carriageway shows evidence of repairs. It looks like cracks have opened up, but they have been sealed (asphalt joint sealant seems to have gone out of fashion in the UK, leading to patches failing and tramline ruts along the centre of many roads). The sealant prevents water ingress, which is critical because water freezes and expands in winter, creating potholes.

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A Country Road in Germany

A Country Road in Germany
Another random photo of a country road in Germany. As usual, despite the wider range of temperatures than in the UK, the asphalt is in near perfect condition (if you look very carefully you can see some minor damage).

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Immaculate Asphalt in Germany

Immaculate Asphalt in Germany
This high resolution image is unique in that I took it specifically to show the quality of the road surface. Note the lack of a join down the middle, a join that would inevitably open up into a tramline rut that is hazardous to cycling (a common problem in Birmingham). Where I cycle in Germany this is nothing unusual. This is a through-route for motor traffic that connects various villages to a nearby market town. I was there at a quiet time, but even so I had to wait to get an unobstructed view of the carriageway.

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Damaged Cycleway in Germany

Damaged Cycleway in Germany
The sign on the right warns that the cycleway is damaged, and indeed it is. The damage is probably thermal (it can get very hot in Germany). However, whilst the cycleway is indeed a bit bumpy, it's not as bad as parts of NCN5 through South Birmingham. In a country where it is normal for asphalt to be absolutely trashed, signing would be a herculean task. You can also see that the carriageway has been patched. However, there are no suspension-destroying holes on this relatively major road (that would probably be classed as a B road in the UK).

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A Junction on a Major Road in Germany

A Junction on a Major Road in Germany
This road turns into an Autobahn behind this viewpoint, a recent road development that I'm not not happy about because the cycle path that you can see ahead has been closed here as part of this change. Germany is not a cycling paradise. However, it's worth adding that there is a controlled cycle crossing before the Autobahn. It spends most of its time asleep, but if you press the button it will wake up and give you the green light in less time than a British toucan crossing, and you get to cross the entire carriageway in one go. Despite the very heavy motor traffic and turning vehicles, note that the carriageway, whilst not perfect, is in an acceptable condition. The cycle path in the direction shown is also in an acceptable condition, and very welcome given the traffic on the carriageway. If you're wondering where cyclists heading the other way are supposed to go, I'm still working on it. There is a route if you turn off here, and some new cycle paths are being built, but the last time I was there everything was in a state of flux.

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A Busy Urban Junction in Germany

A Busy Urban Junction in Germany
This roundabout in Lübeck is an example of how not to do things. There is no cycling infrastructure, and unusually in my experience it has more than one lane. It's usually rammed with motor traffic, and it represents a really unpleasant barrier between the historic city centre and the station, which is a route that many, many tourists will want to take. Despite the very high levels of motor traffic, the asphalt is in generally good condition, though I can see a couple of pothole candidates behind the person on a bike that probably would not be problematic for cyclists (they appear to be due to a bad carriageway section join). The dark grey patches you can see on the roundabout itself are the result of yet another attempt by the city authority to make this junction work.

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Kiel Bus Interchange

Kiel Bus Interchange
Some patching and minor damage to the asphalt at this bus interchange in Kiel, but nothing that would take out any cyclist who chooses to ignore the sign that says this area is for buses.

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Patches Galore

Patches Galore
I don't cycle on (the adjacent cycle path of) this major road in Germany, so I have no photos of it. But you can see the (dark) patch repairs, and I can tell you that this road makes for a bumpy ride in a car. However, this is not a matter of politics or finances, but rather one of geology. The unstable ground is literally ripping the road apart. Consequently it is heavily patched. This is the best I can do as an example of a German road in poor condition.

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