On Chicago Potholes+Big Data

One thing I was not prepared for when I moved from Florida last year was the sheer state of roads here in Chicago.  The potholes are insane.  AmIrite? In fact, I have taken to naming them.  With help of friends on the Facebook, some names I have come up with: The Kraken, The Terminator, The Abyss, The Violator, Destructor, Earthquake, The Tea Party (for the trolls out there), the Door to China, the Door to Narnia, and The Gorge (affectionately, this should be pronounced like “Jorge”).


Oh, you think I am being melodramatic?  I offer you this evidence from Old Town:


I have worked through several different theories as to why potholes are so prominent in Chicago, thinking it was about the cold and the snow.  I am no scientist, but I suspected that it was a combination of the two that caused potholes.  If this theory holds water, one would find other large northern cities like Boston, New York, Buffalo, Minneapolis, Madison, Detroit, Columbus, and St. Louis rounding out the top 10 cities with the worst potholes, even if there was such a list.  Oh wait, there is.

A national transportation research group called TRIP, issued a report in October 2013 that listed the cities with the worst road conditions in the United States.  Rubbing my hands together like a gleeful child, I opened the document, looking for evidence that would support my theory.  And there was none.

The report categorized cities among several different indicators that influence road conditions in a metropolitan area.  According to TRIP, annual VOC (vehicle operating costs) and the % of poor in a metro area are important.  One could argue about the validity of a measure like VOC as an indicator of the damage that cars incur from poor road conditions.  It is possible that this might not be accurate in cities without extensive and well-developed public transportation systems, requiring more people to own cars in order to transport themselves around.  This would increase the number of poor people who own cars, but cannot afford to maintain them (they might report lower VOC).  Also, people living in cities with strong public transportation networks might decide to forego costly car repairs because they can.  If an encounter with a rough pothole leaves them needing costly car repairs, they might be able to use alternative methods of transportation until they can afford the repairs, lowering the risk of near-future damages, because they abstain from driving for weeks or months at a time.  Of course there is likely some merit to the inclusion of “percent of poor people” there are in a metro area means there is less taxable income and thus, fewer resources for public works like road repair.

Below are tables for the 20 urban areas with greater than 500,000 residents, the first is for annual VOC and the second is for % poor in the city.  Of the twenty cities listed in each table, 16 overlap.  This means that 16 of the cities with the highest VOC are also in the top 20 for % poor in large urban areas.



What is intriguing (and unfortunate for my Cold Hard Winter theory) is the presence of so many warm/temperate weather cities on the VOC list (assuming that VOC is a valid indicator of poor road conditions).  If you are curious about how Chicago compares: Index A details the state of Chicago’s roads as 33% poor, 39% mediocre, 14% fair, and 14% good and #29 on the percent poor list with 33% of residents considered poor.  In terms of VOC, Index C shows that Chicago falls just outside the top 20 with an annual cost of $567 a year.

My takeaway- roads in Chicago are bad, but not as bad as some places.

Some are suggesting putting Big Data to use by crowd-sourcing locations of bad potholes.  Boston’s Mayoral office New Urban Mechanics launched a project in July 2012 called Street Bump has attempted to do this, allowing users to report potholes with their smart phones.  This is an interesting concept, particularly if you consider what is possible with real-time reporting and navigation, with other apps, like Waze.  Could you imagine driving and your phone giving a ping or some other notification that you’re about to drive into Destructor?

Because, that would be amazing.


Author: Jessica Bishop-Royse

Jessica Bishop-Royse is the SSRC’s Senior Research Methodologist. Her areas of interest include: health disparities, demography, crime, methods, and statistics. She often finds herself navigating the fields of sociology, demography, epidemiology, medicine, public health, and policy. She was broadly trained in data collection, Stata, quantitative research methodology, as well as statistics. She has experience with multi-level analyses, survival analyses, and multivariate regression. Outside of the work context, Jessi is interested in writing, reading, travel, photography, and sport.

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