Asphalt Alternatives: Can We Escape Winter Potholes?


There’s a joke about Chicago, “there are only two seasons: winter, and construction.” The joke rings as true as it does funny. Summer comes in, hot and humid, and the roads are populated with traffic cones, blinking arrows and large signs in screaming’ orange—“DETOUR”. Boom, and you’re sharing one lane of traffic during rush hour and tearing out your hair. Come winter, while the roads may be clear of cones, there is snow, slippery ice and poor visibility. You may not be sharing lanes, but not to worry; the time you saved is instead spent digging out your car from a snowbank that is definitely tall enough to ride the raging bull. Or on the struggle bus, literally, a bus struggling through the slush to outpace a tortoise.

A blanket of road salt coats your block and everything is gravy for a minute, but deep down you know that all that melting water is going to infiltrate the smooth asphalt roads and cause fissures to become cracks to become potholes….and suddenly it’s summer again and the crews have blocked off the main streets and you’re having the same adult conversations over a couple of glasses of wine about how Western/Ashland/Fullerton/Major Crucial Thoroughfare is so screwed up and you realize you sound an awful lot like your dad. And that’s pretty much how it goes.

But back to those roads for a minute. There are 36 road closures in Chicago that are active through Fall 2017 right now according to IDOT’s website (filter to “Cook” County, search “Chicago” and subtract the general road restrictions from the mix.) While it is a vague social salve to complain about construction and/or parking, do you ever wonder if it has to be this way? Do the roads always need to be under the knife? Does every passing winter need to bloat and crack our roads the way it does? Must every bike ride feel like an obstacle course as the ice melts away, revealing valleys and potholes we must swerve and dodge?

To be bureaucratic, yes, and no.

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First, what our roads are made of: straight from the Illinois Road and Transportation Builder’s Association, the roads in Illinois are made of locally sourced materials, including “sand, stone, liquid asphalt, and/or concrete.” Generally, concrete is used on highways and asphalt on local roads. Asphalt is more porous—being made up of thousands of little rocks—so when ice melts, it finds its way into the cracks, settling there until the below freezing dip. As it freezes, it expands, and once it melts again or evaporates it leaves a pocket in its wake. These little pockets eventually weaken the structure of the road, collapsing as traffic passes over them, causing potholes every winter. The salt used to melt the ice doesn’t help, as it erodes most everything it touches. The thickness of the road is a factor too. Imagine one layer of plywood with a hole in it holding up to thousands of cars passing over it everyday. Now imagine 300 layers where only the very surface experiences a crack. It wouldn’t be as vulnerable to creating a pocket large enough for the road to collapse. This whole thing is called the “freeze-thaw cycle” and it is liberally, and deservedly, blamed for all the potholes after each bitter cold season. Living in the midwest poses its problems too. The Great Lakes gussy up precipitation, increasing the amount of freezing/thawing happening every winter.

Weather aside, our approach to road building was flawed from the start. For one, America started building its roads really fast in the ’50s, but fast meant layering asphalt on compacted dirt, instead of more sturdy layers of concrete—like the Germans, who of course have the world’s best roads. It didn’t help that the transition from rail to road in terms of goods delivery meant that huge 18-wheeler truckers were constantly barreling over asphalt roads that were built to at most accommodate an American sized mini-van. So, thinner asphalt layers created more vulnerability to potholes and damage. Another reason our roads suffer so much in the winter is that both taxpayers and the city balk at increasing any expenditure on roads, but the truth is that the more we put off maintenance, the worse the problems get. A pothole requires exponentially more time and expense to repair than paving over a crack. And re-laying down roads takes longer and more expense still, but on the flipside, with newer and more sturdy techniques available, they would require far less maintenance. To borrow from a 2007 Tribune article on the subject, the toll authority’s Chief Engineer said that “when you are in a cycle of intermittent repairs, you know you are just buying time.” Like that junker car you bought where the repair bill has overtime exceeded its start-up cost, we are caught in one exhausting cycle of fixing crappy roads. Validation: Illinois was on the list of the U.S.’ ten worst roads in 2010 (though IDOT refuted this claim, saying it was based on data from 2008.) Mayor Emanuel has certainly made repaving roads a priority (and not just patching) but the old adage applies: if it ain’t broke don’t fix it; but if it is…maybe stop fixing it and start replacing it?

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photo credit: moss

Before we crack into some possible upgrades to our roadway systems, perhaps one contribution to our reluctance to invest more in our roads is that people don’t want to pay more taxes to create new and sturdier roads from the ground up, and who among us doesn’t understand that? Politicians do, and that’s why no politician has ever opened with “…and we’ll be increasing your taxes when I get elected.” People want public goods to be free and for everyone. Should they be accessible to everyone? Yes. But they aren’t free—they can’t be and never have been. And that’s not a bad thing—but it is a fact that often gets lost in the protestations. Our tax dollars support our infrastructure, and our infrastructure supports our quality of life. Smooth, functional roads that last longer are better for the environment, they cause less blood boiling congestion, they reduce road rage and, anecdotally, this makes people kinder; they increase productivity for one, because people get to work in less time and two, because it has been proven in many studies that long commutes eat your soul like a cocktail olive in a martini glass. They have also been allegedly correlated with divorce. Oh and crappy roads are hard on cars and buses, so you’re paying for repairs in some way no matter what, whether its a longer commute, an additional scoop out of your tax budget, or a trip to the chiropractor. Most of Europe and Japan pay crazy high tolls on the roads, and that hurts when we hand over our wallets, but perhaps we’re making back this money in other ways? By getting better mileage from our tank, a car which doesn’t need to go to the shop, and the mental serenity that comes with not spending hours stuck in traffic because of yet another road closure.


Julie and Scott Brusaw of Idaho were meandering around the house one day, eating vanilla wafers, when a lightbulb went off. “By george, I’ve got it!” they both said at the same time. “Let’s make our roads solar-powered.” Ok TRUTH: we don’t really know what the genesis of this completely marvelous idea was from a couple of half electric engineer and half psychotherapist. But it’s wacky in the best way possible. The Brusaws dreamed up a road material paved with PV (photovoltaic) cells; a smart road, which could change lanes, advertise inclement weather or road closures with flashing lights, charge electric cars as they whizzed past, heat up to melt snow and ice, and refuel the grid with the power they accrued. They are now called Solar Roadways and have blown many other kickstarter campaigns out of the water.


“The composition of a panel is always the same and consists of three parts: on top, a hard glass layer containing the solar panels, LED lights and heating,” explains Brusaw. “Then comes the second layer, which contains the controller, where a microprocessor unit activates the lights and communicates with the road panels. Finally, the bottom layer ensures that the electrical current collected from above makes it to homes and charging stations for electric cars. In addition, there is space for other cables, such as television or telephone lines.” The panels outermost glass layer is “hard as steel but not at all smooth”, to emulate the traction with asphalt provides,” Brusaw said to in an interview. The nice thing about a textured surface that isn’t permeable is that those pesky potholes would be, theoretically, all but obsolete. Though we do imagine a glass road might portend other issues, and resurfacing would be even more expensive than it is already (though theoretically you wouldn’t have to do it as often).

And, drumroll please, these panels will be installed for their first official test run on the legendary Route 66! First the walkway, in Conway, MO; then the actual highway! Sandpoint, Idaho and Baltimore are both soon to be recipients of pilot panels as well. We can’t wait to see how they’ll perform.

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photo credit: moss

Roads like the German Autobahn, the highway of sports car driver’s dreams (yes there are areas where there are NO SPEED LIMITS, NO TOLLS, and BARELY ANY POLICE) were built from the start with stone foundations nearly twice the depth of the average American road. As mentioned before, the deeper the roadbed and the more layers of concrete or asphalt, the more resistant the road is to wear and tear and the less overhauls it will need in a longer span of time. Additionally, these roads are designed with superior drainage systems. Other countries like Sweden and France are adding recycled tires their asphalt to make it more durable, and Phoenix is following suite. The solution is simple: build it better, maintain it at the first sign of wear, and it’ll pay you back by lasting twice or thrice as long with less headache.


While the above solutions require vast quantities of time and money, their cost in resources would be more than recouped in their long term civic savings. But there is no doubt that in the short term, they would be quite disruptive. Other solutions, ones which are more indirect but might help just as much should be used in conjunction with the massive project of relaying roads entirely. Bicycle superhighways, like this one in Germany make cycling more pleasant and more efficient, not to mention safer. This might get more people on their bikes everyday, which would get more cars off the road, causing them to wear down less quickly. Additionally superhighways meant only for pedestrians and cyclists would not take nearly the beating of highways or streets meant for cars and truck. The average car weighs nearly 2.5 tons. The average bike weighs no more than 15 pounds. Speaking of a 5,000 pound car; if you’ve ever been to Europe or Asia you may gawk at the teeny tiny cars that you see. The Kei prototype in Japan dictates that the vehicle, whether pick up truck or mini van must not exceed 11 by 4.9 feet. This type of car used to be known as “the people’s car.” and indeed in Japan you will see these adorable vehicles everywhere. Lighter cars that take less of a toll on the roads? What a concept! Far be it from us to prescribe a “tiny car” to any and everyone, perhaps we should simply think of it as an option for those who are commuting solo or don’t need to deliver pianos every day of the week. And while we’re at it perhaps we can ban the hummer and other unnecessarily large cars completely—or else have a special tax on it that goes directly to road repairs. Lastly, let’s take a look at how we can build our roads to have better drainage, whether its by engineering inclines or installing plants that can better absorb runoff while resisting frost.

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photo credit: moss

If none of the above works out, it’s a comfort to know that residents of pothole-ridden towns have certainly made these banes of driving actually fun. In Chicago, one artist goes in guerrilla style, covering up potholes with mosaic tiles to make beautiful splashes of colorful public art on an otherwise grim and dilapidated street. His “treat” installations might be our favorite. I mean, look at that creamsicle, right in the middle of the street. In Scranton, MI, Pothole Popup was a photo contest that encouraged people to find fun ways to repurpose potholes. While the oysters en ice is surely the most elegant use for a pothole we could think of, it’s hard not to love the barbies enjoying their day off in their very own swimming pool. And then of course, there is the lurid answer to Banksy, who made Manchester’s Pothole problem simply unignorable to the powers that be by surrounding them in suggestive imagery (NSFW? Maybe).

Will we vanquish potholes anytime soon? Only time (and money) will tell. Till then, download your favorite podcast and take a chill pill—it could be a bumpy ride.