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The pits of hell

Every year, the city fills thousands of potholes,
so why are we still driving into them all the time?

Potholes like this one behind MacEwan University make driving in the city more adventure than pleasure. (Cole Buhler)

By Nikita Case

HOW DO YOU face your enemy? You grit your teeth, choose your best swear words and rush towards it with unfaltering courage … or stupidity.

But what if the enemy is unpitying – and everywhere? Like potholes.

They’re not unique to Edmonton, and they are the bane of drivers everywhere. The swearing that comes before the sickening thump as your vehicle plunges into the pit, the crown-loosening clack as your teeth are jolted together, the searing heat as your coffee sloshes onto your lap, and the primal fear of contemplating your credit card balance.

One would think that, with all the technology and science of the 21st century, we might have solved the pothole problem by now.


Roughly 424,000 potholes, ranging in size from dinner plates to tires, were filled in 2018. In 2019, 10,000 potholes were filled between January and February, and another 10,000 in March. In 2020, more than 500,000 potholes were filled.

That’s close to 1 million potholes. In Edmonton alone. In three years.

But the funny thing is, no one knows for sure exactly how many potholes are filled annually.

Hugh Donovan, a lab inspector for the Canadian Council of independent laboratories, says the city doesn’t count all the pothole filled each year.

“It depends on the severity of the year,” he says. “I’ve heard everything from 450 to 850,000, but they don’t actually count the number of holes they fill. How they come up with a number is they take the amount of material that they put in the holes.”

So, the amount of material used annually predicts the number of potholes filled.

Fluctuating temperatures and the several million cars that travel our roads create cracks and fissures that grow into potholes. But 2021’s polar vortex in February was the best thing that could have happened to the roads. When they freeze, roads can carry much heavier loads. But nighttime freezing and daytime thawing are some of the main culprits behind potholes.

There’s no way to tell for sure how many potholes the city fills, but the material used gives us some idea of the state of our roads. (Cole Buhler)

However, the best way to attack an enemy is to know all its strengths and weaknesses. So, let’s review pothole history.

Where did the name “pothole” come from? These car-wrecking holes date back to England in the 15th and 16th century. When wagons and coach wheels gouged ruts in the road, pottery makers would dig into the ruts to reach the clay deposits underneath. Thus, people refer to them as potholes.

How are potholes formed?

Most believe the freeze-thaw cycle causes potholes, but the scrubbing effect is actually to blame.

Tires force “the water in and suck the water out, and that gives it a kind of scrubbing effect,” Donovan says.

Fine particles are pushed and pulled with the water, creating an abrasive that accelerates the erosion and deterioration of asphalt. Thus, the pavement is weakened and – cue a darkening horizon – a pothole eventually forms.

The city prioritizes potholes in three sections: High priority locations (inspected within 24 hours and repaired within two days); lower priority locations (inspected within five days and repaired within a month); alleys (inspected within two weeks and repaired within a year).

Now, how do you beat this enemy?

The perfect asphalt formula is unknown. However, Donovan says, “there’s a lot of research being done in the United States and Canada. The whole goal is to try and make it last longer.”

Your noble, all-wheel drive SUV may be able to smash through potholes undamaged, but, for the rest of us, a pothole can be crippling – literally; shocks aren’t cheap. Instead, do everyone a favour, and dial 311 or, use the 311 app, to report the money-pit to the city.

Citizens across the city are counting on you to help fight the war on potholes.

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