This blog post is part of a series investigating different demographics and uses of mySociety services. You can read more about this series here.
I saw a comment on Twitter the other month along the lines of: “is civic tech too boring? It’s dominated by reporting potholes to councils”.
As someone working in civic tech I find this terribly unfair because civic tech is about so much more than that! For instance, we also report dog poo to councils.
But it’s certainly true that there are a lot of potholes involved. It’s the largest use of FixMyStreet, representing a quarter of all reports. People have submitted over 361,000 reports and over 54,000 photos of potholes. As a result, while the FixMyStreet database represents a fraction of all potholes, it represents one of the largest datasets of pothole reports covering the whole country.
And while it’s easy to think of potholes as the obsession of people pointing at roads in local papers, they are a serious problem. There are a lot of them, they appear everywhere, cause problems on roads when people try to avoid them, and damage when they don’t. For cyclists, potholes can be fatal.
Given that, what does FixMyStreet data tell us about potholes?
How many potholes are reported through FixMyStreet?
Up to the end of 2019 there have been 423,736 potholes or road surface defects reported through FixMyStreet (either .com or a cobrand), with 90,000 reported in 2019. Working from a rough figure of 675,000 actual pothole reports a year, this is around 13% of all potholes reported in the UK.
A feature of reports to FixMyStreet is that, while the majority of reports are made by men, there are different ratios in different kinds of reports and categories are often gendered in terms of reporters. Deriving the gender of the reporter from their name, potholes and road surface defects are mostly reported by men, and disproportionately more than the site in general.
As explored in a previous post, this isn’t an essential gender difference but is likely to result from men having far more cause to encounter potholes. In 2013, men in the UK were on average driving twice as many miles per year as women.
People who report potholes are more likely to have reported multiple problems than other reports. Most pothole reports are made by people who have reported multiple reports and represent a smaller proportion of single report users than other report types.
When are potholes reported?
Potholes tend to be reported during the day, but disproportionately compared to other requests around the evening commute. The chart below shows the distribution of reports by time of day, where green indicates the number of reports is higher than the general distribution of FixMyStreet data.
While potholes are associated most with the start of the year, they occur in smaller numbers all year long. The number of potholes reported through FixMyStreet peaks on the 28th February.
Where are potholes reported?
While reports in FixMyStreet are less likely to be made in less deprived areas in general, this effect is larger for potholes:
This effect is driven more by reporting being lower than usual in more deprived areas than especially high in less deprived areas:
This pattern was generally similar for the Income and Employment domains of deprivation. This does not necessarily mean there are more actual potholes in these areas, but possibly that people in areas with higher income and levels of employment are more likely to report them.
Examining reports using the deprivation subdomain that measures difficulty accessing services (GPs, supermarkets, etc) shows a different pattern, where a disproportionate amount of pothole reports are made in areas with the least access to services.
The area with the worst access to services (typically a measure of distance to services) has a disproportionate amount of total pothole reports on FixMyStreet. This doesn’t necessarily indicate this is where most of the potholes actually are, but more remote, less traffic-ed potholes will rank lower in risk-based calculation than those on busier roads, and hence may go longer without fix, and make a report on FixMyStreet more likely.
Fixing potholes is a never-ending task, as they are an inevitable result of erosion of roads over time. That said, poor repairs will make the return of a pothole more inevitable than it might be. The issue isn’t just that the same pothole returns: if a pothole initially formed because the road surface was poor, others are likely to form in the same area too.
Looking at reports on FixMyStreet up to the end of 2016, for 3% of potholes a new pothole was later reported within 10m between six months and two years after it was first reported (with an average time lag of 15 months). Expanding that ratio to a 20m radius, 7% of potholes had a new pothole reported in the same time range.
While FixMyStreet’s data on potholes is far from universal, the geographical range gives us better scope than any single local authority’s data to see how reporting of potholes relates to social factors. You can examine this data yourself, on our geographic export, which gives counts of different categories of report by LSOA.
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