Image: Amy Kinkead

Back in 2015 Houston elected a leader whose signature campaign pledge was to smooth over the blasted lunar hellscape of our roadways, one pothole at a time. That leader, Mayor Sylvester Turner, further promised to “assess and address” those potholes within one business day of a 311 report, which, according to a recent press release, happens in 100 percent of cases. Considering that nearly one term later we’re still popping tires and jumping bike chains, we wondered about that perfect completion rate. So we decided to subject Turner’s promise to the rigors of the scientific method. Follow along to learn how the experiment went.

Question

Will the City of Houston actually fill the umpteen potholes on our commute from Montrose to the Heights within a day?

Hypothesis

Hell, let’s take the press release at face value. If we are good Samaritans who report 10 potholes of various types and locations, then our municipal overlords will promptly oblige with the requisite asphalt patches.

Experiment

We could have found 10 potholes on a single block, but we ultimately spread the reports across our commute encompassing a mix of neighborhood arteries (Waugh, Westheimer, Dunlavy) and leafy residential streets (Pacific, Hawthorne, Yupon). This experimental design simultaneously fulfilled a public service and satisfied our personal vengeance, given that these are the roads that routinely threaten to bust our oil pans. Our first 311 report felt particularly gratifying as we described, in detail, the asphalt chasm at Yupon and Lovett—local Montrose lore maintains that it is there, not some crater in the Yucatán Peninsula, where the dinosaur-killing meteor impacted Earth 66 million years ago. In this way, all 10 reports felt like telling off a bully; soon email tickets were dispatched to help us track our requests. The one-day countdown clock was ticking.

Assessed and, yes, addressed: a large pothole near Westheimer and Dunlavy

Image: Amy Kinkead

Observations

We discovered that Houston’s 311 site hosts a live map of all the potholes and missed garbage collections and abandoned cars reported across the city. When we checked an hour or two into the countdown, one pothole had already been filled, with another nearby target following suit. Sensing a pattern, we sent a photographer to catch any workers, who, sure enough, were out dumping hot asphalt into another pothole. Captured: Government in action!

Results

Nine out of our 10 potholes were filled by mid-afternoon. We used the map to investigate the lone exception, whose updated report indicated “Maintenance repairs have been scheduled for this location.” Apparently Public Works visited the intersection of Dunlavy and Westheimer and determined our final pothole—a buckle so truly gargantuan that it threatens to suck your vehicle into the next dimension—was too large to simply patch. Steamrollers would be required to complete the “asphalt/skin patch work order,” and a roller crew would be dispatched posthaste. So, no repair within one business day, but it was indeed “assessed and addressed” in the proper time frame. Mayor Turner keeps his perfect score.

Conclusions

As the data clearly show, if you yell into your computer or phone about potholes, someone actually listens. Few acts have left us feeling so powerful.

Why, then, are the roads still so terrible? Well, despite the incessant complaints, exceedingly few Houstonians actually report a pothole. Only about 15 percent of the ones repaired in 2018 were the result of 311 requests—the rest were “proactive” actions undertaken by Public Works. As in so many situations, if you see something, say something.

But remember: As demonstrated by our experiment, the city maintains a rather specific definition for potholes—“any area of missing or severely deteriorated pavement up to 5 feet by 5 feet.” Bigger holes require more extensive remediation, and, if the road is constructed from concrete rather than asphalt, the entire panel must be replaced, which is both costly and labor-intensive. So if your street has more than a few craters—if it reminds you of, oh, post-Blitz London—help is probably more than a day away.

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