#194 ‘Populations of potholes’ plague transport efficiencies

POTHOLERS PATCHED AND STIRRED: In Mpumalanga, one could simply say: “I went to see the potholes” like a tourist attraction. But generally speaking, when you hear or see one, slowing down, ducking and diving is the first course of action. While for pedestrians potholes just mean slower cars, more unpredictable movements, they also mean great chances that cars will start to encroach on their space. Again: where will we walk?

At first glance, road construction seems to be straight forward: municipalities need to have funding allocated to them that enables them to invest in roadway infrastructure. In reality, it is not the case. If good quality roads are constructed, one expects lower maintenance and repair costs— assuming that the infrastructure is used by compliant road vehicles. In other words, no overloading; truck movements along these roads are limited to the design volume; and the municipality is efficient enough to manage all the assets. The Road Asset Management System (RAMS), is an outsourced system which the National Department of Transport administers for municipalities to have accurate information about their road infrastructure. This system is basically run by a consulting company, which assesses the quality of road infrastructure in a specific District municipality. Information about the quality of roads is uploaded through GIS systems, and stored for the municipality to determine their budgets, plans and approaches to managing road assets. In this system, roads are classified by their condition: ‘good’, ‘fair’ and ‘bad’. This is sometimes part of their Integrated Transport Plans; but usually, it is a parallel activity for a number of reasons.

PODCAST: Here’s a link to the podcast, click on the image.

Potholes, private cars, pedestrians and funding

Potholes are quite complex lapses in the quality of infrastructure. Structurally, they should be scarce and if they do exist they need to be repaired once and not resurface. However, many road users witness potholes of all shapes and sizes in their local neighbourhoods; along regional roads; but seldom on the national highway networks that are tolled (unless if something serious happened). In terms of road safety, the nearly 2 million road crashes cost South Africa at least R142bn in a 2016 report, it might be more now— between 12 000 and 14 000 of those crashes were fatal over the years. Given that in 2016, 16% of road fatalities were caused by roads and environmental factors— down to 5% in 2017, and up again to 6% in 2018—what we do not know is the extent to which they contribute to total road crashes. While human factors are important, when confronted with a pothole, a sober driver might need to slowdown and navigate over it, or avoid it by swerving in broad daylight— which might mean facing on-coming traffic, or climbing a sidewalk (if there is one). Alternatively, at night time, with an inebriated driver, the driver might only see it after the fact damage her vehicle, or roll, or even survive the ordeal. Consider the adjustment factors for the RTMC model: more fatalities are in rural areas than in urban areas— are there more interventions there? 

If pedestrians are walking along roads populated with potholes, as Kgafela oa Magogodi puts it, there needs to be a priority for protecting the most vulnerable through appropriate road infrastructure allocations. The significant focus on road infrastructure is specifically oriented toward economic development as a result of increased vehicular traffic movement, while 35% of road fatalities involve pedestrians. Meanwhile investment in road infrastructure does not reflect the needs of non-motorised transport users. Consider the National Estimates of Expenditure’s performance indicators for road infrastructure: pothole repairs completed per road km are not among the indicators; nor are the kilometres of NMT infrastructure built per km of roadway among the indicators. While the road infrastructure budget rises from R34bn to R35bn between the 2020/21 and 2021/22 financial year (contrast this with the R21bn allocation for rail transport in 2021/22, which is a jump from R17.6bn budgeted for in the previous financial year). This is in contrast with the National Roads Policy (NRP), which has already gone beyond these indicators toward an inclusive and fair representation of the complexity involved in roadway infrastructure provision. 

Policy potential and balancing productivity with justice

The National Roads Policy places a broader emphasis on road infrastructure as inclusive of NMT, beyond the conversation about ‘mobility’ without accessibility— which implies significant trade-offs as towns, road vehicles, and trips generated grow at a rate faster than road infrastructure can keep up. Two problem statements, from the NRP stand-out:

Problem Statement 3: There is now a growing recognition that roads are no longer reserved for motorised vehicles only, but for all users including public transport and NMT users. This brings about conflicting mobility and accessibility expectations, especially in urban environments. Walking is a significant commuting mode and cycling has not yet increased significantly, but NMT facilities are limited.

Problem Statement 6: The poor standard of many provincial and local roads are a concern and the road maintenance backlog is growing every year. This is compounded by limited funds as well as a reduced focus on maintenance and limited technical skills in the public sector. Many municipalities and provinces lack the skill, capacity and funding to efficiently manage local road networks.

At the heart of institutional responsiveness, a lack of appropriate road infrastructure quality is partly addressed in the Road Infrastructure Strategic Framework (RISFSA), which is aimed at emphasising the need for capacity and skills to in effect respond to the service delivery needs. This limitation is consistent with the World Bank’s Logistics Performance Index (LPI), which highlights that we have limited logistics infrastructure, and skills to enable our national performance and inherent efficiencies to be realised. That is in terms of economic productivity. Consider the State of Logistics Survey for South Africa from 2009, which Steyn and Bean reported that:

The increase in internal logistics costs due to inadequate road conditions is experienced by most, if not all transportation companies in a country. This  eventually adds up to a significant increase in the logistics costs of a country. As the logistics costs increase, the cost of products in the global marketplace increases, which can have devastating effects on the global competitiveness of that country.”

They actually place emphasis on the fact that the road maintenance costs could range between R0.5/km to R2.30/km as the roughness of the road increases. Good roads, they estimate, could cost 96c per km to repair. But fair roads might increase truck maintenance and repair costs by 30.24%, and bad roads push this cost up to 121%. This may raise logistics costs within the company by between 2.5% and 9.97% (correction from the radio interview)— and their model estimates exclude the operating costs, cargo damage costs, vehicle design and manufacturing costs. Yes, the ripple effect reachers consumer goods, industrial inputs, and the general cost of living in the macroeconomy as it compounds year-by-year. 

From a transport justice perspective— which is an accessibility issue— the importance of appropriate allocations between motorised and non-motorised transport infrastructure allocations is essentially a reflection of local area priorities. With learners walking more often to school, than working people commuting, protected sidewalks are valuable parts of the mobility and access landscape. They are also part of accessing public transport and public services. But, if the quality of the road infrastructure itself is below par from the onset, municipalities will not afford the costs associated with monitoring and maintaining them. 

Perhaps this is where the ‘institutional responsiveness’ should interact with participatory governance, such that roadway users can report infrastructure quality as they use the roadway. Or telematic solutions installed in vehicles may detect awkward manoeuvres, dips and bumps along roadways as part of roadway mapping initiatives to assess the quality of the roadways. Furthermore, would local area road pricing initiatives assist municipalities in maintaining their roadways, or could the need for these intervention be avoided if they chose to invest in higher quality and more durable infrastructure in the first place?


In a world where, the practice highlights how road infrastructure investment leans more toward the motorised transport which is sheltered technology where the user is protected by the vehicle itself. Rather than, supporting and protecting the roadway user who is the ordinary person walking, pushing a pram, cycling or being temporarily or permanently disabled. There are town-planning causes to this situation which can and should be avoided— but this takes time. If funding allocations and policy ambitions were consistent, there might be room for responsive institutions that focus on public participation in a dynamic and more accurate manner. I see what is happening on Twitter with the Johannesburg Road Agency as an excellent activity; but what of the smaller towns and rural areas, which are bound to grow faster than many policy makers expect. Moreso, the Integrated Urban Development Framework sets the precedent for both urban and rural dynamics to be part of the conversation in the macro as more people actually live in these areas than in the concentrated metros. While we need to invest in economic development and activity; we also need to enhance the equitable distribution of mobility and access— this might not be feasible if government acts alone in its current formation. There might be a need for devolved road authorities with deeper financial autonomy, such that communities own the roadway and derive value from its existence. 

Thank you for the reading and the opportunity from SAfm, and the conversation with Stephan Grootes, Dr Mathetha Mokonyama and Bra Siya, from Johannesburg Road Agency.

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