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a pothole with a little cartoon and a guy looking annoyed
Nobody likes a bump in the road (Image: Getty; Treatment: Tina Tiller)

PoliticsJuly 18, 2023

Everything you always wanted to know about potholes but were afraid to ask

a pothole with a little cartoon and a guy looking annoyed
Nobody likes a bump in the road (Image: Getty; Treatment: Tina Tiller)

Concerns about potholes came to a head yesterday as National announced a pothole repair fund as part of its road transport policy. But why are we so obsessed with bumps in the road – and have they really got worse?

Why are there so many potholes at the moment? 

To keep it short: rain! Roads are made of several layers: the asphalt or chip seal on top, with a base material below, and then the actual soil underneath that. Rain is one of the main causes of damage to road surfaces. Once there are cracks in the surface caused by wear, water gets into the base material and washes it out, until the hole crunches open when something heavy goes over it. Once open, the pothole fills with water, which can make it bigger. Potholes can also be caused by sub-zero temperatures, where water expanding as it freezes creates cracks. 

Aotearoa’s wet summer, followed by a wet winter, has created prime conditions for potholes, which people were possibly particularly reminded of as they drove places during the just-finished school holidays. That said, reports of a pothole crisis may be exaggerated: a Waka Kotahi press release earlier this year disputed reports of a record number of pothole complaints, saying the agency had received a similar number in 2022 as the year prior – 351. 

That said, potholes – and complaints about them – are hardly a new thing. A quick examination of Papers Past reveals that a fixation on potholes is a national pastime. “I’ve never seen the road in such a disgraceful condition,” wrote a correspondent in the Pahiatua Herald in 1899. “Upset by a pothole” screams a headline from Feilding in 1926. “There’s a pothole getting deeper and deeper under the wear of traffic,” describes an article titled “Colombo St in a bad state” from the Christchurch Star, which could have been published last week, but was actually written in 1929. 

Why do I hear about them so much? 

Most people in this country traverse roads most days, and potholes are on roads, making them particularly obvious. Marc Wilson, a professor of psychology at Victoria University of Wellington, says that potholes are a kind of everyday annoyance that stick particularly firmly in the mind. 

“We pay more attention to immediate annoyances than future annoyances,” he says, comparing potholes to climate change, a challenge that always seems to be in the future even when it’s in the present. Bigger societal factors contribute too. “When we’re feeling more pessimistic overall – facing climate change, high inflation, higher interest rates, gloominess that’s followed a global pandemic, we’re more likely to attend to minor annoyances, and find them more annoying.” 

While potholes can cause serious accidents, the fact they’re usually minor everyday annoyances is what makes them ideal fodder for politicians, says Wilson, who studies how psychological factors influence political decisions. “Even if you’ve not juddered over one recently, or seen media reports on pothole epidemics, you can easily imagine it,” he explains. Media reporting exacerbates this, because people are further sensitised to the potholes around them. Potholes highlight how hard it is for people to think about times and places beyond ourselves. “If a pothole you didn’t know about last year was fixed, did it happen for you?” Wilson asks. Hence: the headlines describing New Zealand’s roads as the “worst they’ve ever been” even if photos from the 1920s imply otherwise

a white man with a slight smaile and brown hair wearing a charcoal coloured tshird in front of a lecture theatre of students with ubiquitous macbook airs
Marc Wilson studies how politics and psychology overlap (Photo: Supplied)

“I think it’s both a depressing and cunning ploy by the opposition to sensitise people to these annoyances … because it makes people look around for them and that becomes evidence that the opposition is right,” Wilson says. The cause of potholes is diffuse: they affect most people, but it can be argued that they are the product of a previous government’s underinvestment, a current government’s incompetence, the three-year term, inadequate road user charges or simply the rain, beyond any politician’s control. 

But will treating potholes as a serious political issue and promising action to remedy them make a difference at the polls? “That depends on the ability of politicians to tie a relatively small thing like potholes to the bigger sense that everything is falling apart – that potholes are one symptom of a bigger issue.” It could come off as a focus on slushies in prisons rather than the things that really matter, Wilson argues. “If National-leaning voters already know potholes are the sign of an impending apocalypse, and left-leaners know it’s a symptom of National’s past underinvestment in infrastructure, will undecideds think it’s a big enough issue to turn them to National?”

Is an obsession with potholes just another symptom of our devotion to the internal combustion engine? 

Potholes aren’t that great for any road users. Two-wheeled vehicles like motorbikes, cycles and scooters are less stable than four-wheeled vehicles, and riders can easily get injured if they hit a pothole and fall off, as happened to W. Ingram of Hobson St in Fielding in 1926. Injuries can be serious: it’s estimated that one cyclist a week in the UK is killed or seriously injured by an accident involving a pothole. That said, car and truck drivers have vehicles that are more expensive to fix if a wheel gets dented or an undercarriage scraped by a pothole and drivers who drive longer distances tend to experience more stress in general, which is surely exacerbated by unexpected and unavoidable bumps and bangs. 

an orange border around a line of traffic skirting around some orange cones
Road fixing in action: just as inconvenient as the original pothole (Image: Archi Banal)

Why are they called potholes? 

The “hole” part is pretty self explanatory. As for the “pot”, there is a theory that in the Roman empire, where roads knitted together a state that spanned thousands of kilometres, enterprising ceramicists would scoop clay out of potholes to make pots, a claim that has been attributed to trivia experts (hmm). Slightly more likely, an article in the Montreal Gazette postulates that “pothole” replaced the more obvious term “puddle hole”, possibly because our ancestors liked talking about puddle holes so much they wanted to say it with fewer syllables. Incidentally, the term in French is “nid-de-poule”, which means “hen’s nest”, alluding to chooks’ behaviour of scratching in the ground. 

What impact can they have? 

On a practical level: they’re annoying, they make travelling less comfortable, they can injure people and damage vehicles. 

On a metaphorical level, it’s harder to say. Are potholes, as Wilson suggests the National Party is implying, a sign of the descent of civilisations into rutted roads and bruised tyres? Or are they an empty, blank space, a reminder of the hollow within all of us that longs to be filled; if not with asphalt then with trust that real, meaningful change is possible? I consulted New Zealand’s poet laureate, Chris Tse. It’s not that deep, he suggested, but responses to potholes do point to a truth about the national psyche. “Depending on our mood, we either drive around and actively avoid confronting the source of our frustration, or we moan about it until someone does something about it.”

What can I do about potholes?

Most councils have a form on the website where you can let the maintenance team know about potholes. If it’s on a state highway, contact Waka Kotahi. Councils and Waka Kotahi set expected response times depending on the size and location of the pothole. 

Auckland in shades of green and pink, roads completely empty nd therefore unrealistic. (you're not in traffic, remember, you ARE the traffic)
The roading utopia, freed from the shackles of pots and their holes, may never come to pass (Image: Archi Banal)

People frustrated with potholes have taken other forms of action. A vigilante in Otago drew dicks around potholes, but resorted to floating ducks in them after being threatened with police action. Spectacle is a common theme: presumably making a comment about the enduring appeal of the pothole in newspapers, UK writer Adrian Chiles demonstrated pothole size with a newspaper earlier this year. In 2018, Domino’s Pizza in the US tried to gain media attention for fixing potholes in nominated towns to ensure a smoother ride for their pies. For others, the pleasure of potholes is a personal one, with this Northampton-based British man dubbed “Mr Pothole” describing how he enjoys logging 50 potholes while sipping brandy in the evening.

How hard are they to fix? 

The protocol for repairing a pothole is helpfully set out in Waka Kotahi’s C3 Specification for the Repair of Potholes. To make the road smooth again, as a temporary fix, road engineers will wodge some material, like tar seal, in the hole. To properly fix it, the “distressed” material will be removed, presumably while distressed drivers are directed elsewhere via orange cones. Once the edges are straight and even, the subsurface material will be replaced, followed by the surface material. I felt bored typing out that sentence too. When the pothole is repaired, it should be “waterproof, dense and stable”, to reassure dense and/or stable drivers who may be leery of patches on the road after their stressful experience on the detour route. 

Will I ever live in the New Zealand utopia I dream of, one without potholes? 

Probably not, sorry. 

Keep going!