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Are UK road surfaces and potholes really worse than abroad?

Michael Donlevy
9 Jun 2020

Cyclists like to complain about the state of the roads, but are the UK’s roads any different to those on the Continent?

Lock a bunch of pro cyclists in a room and they’ll struggle to agree on much – but there is one subject on which they will stand united: roads.

‘All pros say the UK’s roads are gritty and hard to ride on, whereas in France, Mallorca or Lanzarote they’re smooth and easy to ride on,’ says British Cycling coach Will Newton.

‘At one point Lanzarote’s roads were worse than the UK’s, but they had local elections coming up and all the roads were resurfaced with beautifully smooth tarmac. They deteriorate with the sand and wind, but you can guarantee that every time local elections are due they’ll be resurfaced.’

Surely the state of European roads doesn’t come down to politics? You wouldn’t get that here because… oh, wait. Howard Robinson, chief executive of the Road Surface Treatments Association, is clear what – or who – is to blame.

Lack of funding

‘The main problem is lack of proper investment and funding for maintenance,’ he says. ‘National government is unable to understand the importance of rural and local roads and concentrates on trunk roads and high-profile projects such as HS2. There’s no joined-up thinking, as it’s local roads that connect everything.’

Ah, but an island nation such as ours can be very set in its ways, so perhaps the UK is simply behind the times when it comes to choosing the best surface.

‘Surface dressing is the most common road surface treatment on C and D roads – mainly rural roads,’ says Robinson. ‘France, Germany and Spain have massive surface treatments industries, which means it’s the main surfacing over there as well.’

So we’re not that out of step, then. Surface dressing involves covering the road with a thin layer of bitumen binder and stone chippings, which are then rollered until they’re compacted.

The road will then be opened up to traffic at a reduced speed to further compact the surface. Unfortunately, as at least one local council warns on its website, ‘The work is weather dependent so the schedule is subject to change at short notice.’

And therein lies a big, crumbling chunk of the problem…

The hole truth

Perhaps the biggest issue for UK cyclists is the sheer number of potholes, which are caused by both the passage of time and an unavoidable design flaw in our road surfaces.

Firstly, natural weathering means the surface deteriorates, a process amplified by the fact that bitumen becomes more brittle with age. Secondly, there’s the matter of friction, which is higher on rough surfaces. High friction helps slow traffic, and explains why roads are rough rather than smooth.

The endless passage of vehicles can lead to cracking in that rough surface, which allows water in. In winter the water repeatedly freezes and thaws, and every time it freezes it expands, pushing the surface up to make the crack bigger, allowing more water in and creating a hole.

Traffic weakens the surface even more, making the hole deeper, wider – and more dangerous.

‘If you hit a pothole in a car you might need a trip to the garage,’ says Cycling UK campaigns and communications coordinator Sam Jones. ‘If you do it on a bike you might be taking a trip to the hospital or the morgue.’

Cyclist fatalities

In fact, Department for Transport statistics reveal 211 cyclists were killed between 2010 and 2014 in incidents that reported ‘poor or defective road surface’ as the contributory factor. Of those, 60 were on A-roads, 33 on B-roads and 188 on unclassified and C-roads.

Fatalities are people, not just statistics. In 2015, the widow of cyclist Martin Uzzell won six-figure compensation from North Yorkshire County Council for its failure to repair the road on which he died after hitting a four-inch pothole and being thrown under a car.

A month before he died, the council inspected the hole and decided repairs weren’t necessary.

And in March of 2016, Ralph Brazier from Twickenham Cycling Club died when he was thrown from his bike after hitting a pothole on a club ride. There was no car involved.

‘You can’t just blame the weather,’ says Newton. ‘I’ve cycled a lot in the German countryside and the roads are really good quality, but the winter there is even harsher than in the UK. Likewise large areas of France.’

And so it all comes down to money – and politics. ‘There’s a £12 billion backlog of pothole repairs but the funding for local road maintenance is £6 billion for all of 2015 to 2021,’ says Robinson. ‘This simply isn’t enough. It’s like putting a plaster on a broken leg.’

In March 2020, similar drips of funding were promised by the government, with a £500 pledge to repair potholes. The government promised, 'Councils will get an extra £500 million in 2020/21 through the new £2.5 billion Potholes Fund announced at Budget 2020.'

The funding was also dressed up as extra cycling funding when at the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis the government pledged £2bn for active travel

In one sense, that's short thrift for those hoping for investment in actual cycling infrastructure. At the same time, though, with 250 cyclists having been killed or seriously injured by potholes between 2014-2019, it is an issue that will put many off cycling in the UK.

Cycling UK agrees. ‘All road users suffer from poorly maintained roads, but cyclists are disproportionately affected,’ says Jones.

The organisation encourages cyclists to report potholes using the website fillthathole.org.uk, which has highlighted over 177,000 issues in the UK since its conception.

The site reached a record high of 20,646 in a single year in 2011, but that doesn’t mean things are improving.

‘There are simply more apps now,’ says Jones. ‘We made a big PR effort when we launched, but now there’s also the RAC app and Fix My Street. It’s always worth reporting potholes though, because sometimes they’re filled in on the same day.

‘Plus if you have an accident on a pothole that’s been reported you may be able to claim for damages or injury.’

Quaint no good

If we have established that the state of the UK’s roads is not a myth, there may still be a degree of mythology here.

Is it possible we’re more likely to forgive a Continental road for being poorly surfaced, considering it rustic charm, than we are a local road that forms part of a daily commute or weekly club ride?

There's a certain romance in bad road surfaces in Europe

‘I don’t think so,’ says Jones. ‘It’s understandable that some roads won’t be ideal in harsh mountain conditions, and we’re aware of the romance of those conditions. The likes of Coppi and Bartali raced up glorified sheep tracks. But we don’t commute up the Alps.

‘Tarmac is supposed to last around 18 years, but we have utilities companies digging up and filling in roads separately, potholes are patched up and six months later patched up again – and the definition of stupidity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

‘There needs to be a unified solution to improving the UK’s roads, and that will only come from wholesale resurfacing.’

In the meantime, Newton sounds a warning: ‘Cyclists need to spend more time looking at the road rather than their GPS and power meters. You wouldn’t get behind the wheel of a car and spend your whole time looking at the speedo.’

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