They’re unlikely superheroes. Men and women in orange uniforms, reflective yellow stripes at the knees and waistbands, wielding spades and rakes, maneuvering graders into place. Instead of being summoned by a signal beamed into the night sky or the desperate shouts of citizens in peril, they arrive on the scene thanks to very modern technology – reports logged on an app. Their mission? To repair the approximately 100,000 potholes that pockmark Johannesburg’s 13,599km road network.
They’re caused by ageing, unmaintained water pipes, illegal trenching of roads and grey water from baths, washing machines and other household or business activities running unchecked along the streets. And they’re more than an inconvenience: they’re part of the City of Johannesburg’s R170 billion infrastructure backlog, of which it estimates about R11.8 billion stems from the road network. That’s a huge bill – one that hits already stretched ratepayers in their pockets.
Enter a sector that’s not often kindly looked upon: insurance companies. Driven by a rising number of pothole-related claims (many companies even offer specialised pothole cover), insurers Discovery and DialDirect approached the City of Johannesburg with an idea. What would happen, they wondered, if residents became the city’s eyes and ears, the insurers opened their wallets, and the Johannesburg Roads Agency supplied the manpower?
The Pothole Patrol initiative was born.
New tech for an old problem
The Pothole Patrol got to work in May 2021. Five months later, its app was launched so that residents had a quick, centralised space for reporting any potholes they spotted (or had to navigate on their daily commute). The app is free to download from Google Play Store for Android and the Apple Store for iPhones.
Motorists create an account, take a picture of a pothole, pin the location and submit the report. They then receive a reference number and track the progress of the repair. The Johannesburg Roads Agency says that, because of the high number of reports, there’s a waiting period of about two weeks before “patrollers” reach a pothole. Jaded South Africans might be imagining a patchy tar job reminiscent of one that President Cyril Ramaphosa was photographed examining in early September 2022.
The Pothole Patrol uses two approaches, depending on what they find at the scene of the ‘crime’. In the first, the area is prepared and cleaned. The offending pothole is waterproofed and particulates of non-metallic minerals (known collectively as “aggregate”) are blown into it at high pressure. Then comes compacting, more waterproofing and a layer of “fine asphalt residue”. The second method involves a thermal process that, at one point, sees the bitumen in the road heated up to 150°C. No matter the method, each repaired pothole is marked so that it can be checked to make sure everything is holding together.
Beneath the surface
The project doesn’t rely solely on these reports; the app has been downloaded a little more than 5,000 times from the Google Play Store (figures were not available for iStore downloads) and doesn’t yet have enough users for a snowball effect. Discovery Insure CEO Anton Ossip told explain that the Pothole Patrol also uses telematics data – which combines computerised data and telecommunications – to study roads in high-traffic zones, which are more susceptible to potholes. This allows them to target specific areas without waiting for driver reports.
Potholes, of course, are not unique to South Africa. Across the world in New Orleans, Louisiana the situation is so dire that residents have established an Instagram page called “Look at this fuckin’ street”; one recent submission features a blow-up Minion figure jauntily flopping out of a large pothole. Tech solutions aren’t new, either. For example, residents in Houston, Texas can report potholes on the 311 app and track repairs on the Pothole Tracker. That initiative was meant to be a short-term solution when it launched in January 2016. Six years on, its work continues – an indication of just how intractable cities’ pothole problems can be.
Despite the Pothole Patrol’s work, that intractability is playing out in Johannesburg, too. Since May 2021, more than 100,000 potholes have been repaired. More keep forming, though. It’s ‘Whac-A-Mole’, with bitumen.
Discovery Insure’s Ossip explains that underlying water issues are often to blame in areas riddled with potholes. If repairs don’t hold, this “could indicate that there is an underlying water problem on that road and then there’s no point fixing it the whole time”. When this happens, the Pothole Patrol draws Johannesburg Water in to address the bigger problem.
Still, Ossip is upbeat about the project’s future. For one thing, Discovery Insure has seen “a significant reduction” (he declines to provide recent statistics) in pothole-related claims in Johannesburg compared to the rest of the country.
The city’s motorists, carefully weaving their way around potholes, will hope that this initiative outlasts others designed to fix the perennial problem. It will take political will – which ebbs and flows amid Johannesburg’s perpetually chaotic local politics – and financial might. This, at least, seems assured. DialDirect, the City of Johannesburg and Discovery Insure have a five-year contract. And Ossip hinted that, despite the costs (an estimated R480 million a year), it may continue beyond 2026. There’s also a chance that it will lead to similar initiatives elsewhere in South Africa. In June 2022, the national Department of Transport noted the Pothole Patrol’s successes so far and said it would propose a policy to give more private companies permission to fix potholes.