The Pothole Crusaders 

Bicyclists hold East Bay cities accountable for keeping roads clear of debris and other hazards.

On a ragged stretch of road near the Coliseum in East Oakland, a small crew of city workers gathered to fill dozens of potholes on a recent Thursday morning. Six men and one woman from Oakland's Public Works Agency, clad in white hard hats and bright orange vests, progressed west along 66th Avenue between International Boulevard and San Leandro Street. It was the penultimate week of Oakland's annual "pothole blitz," in which several crews were dispatched throughout the city for the sole purpose of repairing potholes. Each of the city's three zones — north, central, and south — received two weeks of undivided attention and around seven hundred newly repaired potholes.

"The thing about the blitz is you can really see the difference," said Public Works Agency spokesperson Kristine Shaff. "It sends a message that says, 'We are here and we are working.'" And she's right — although the heavily trafficked stretch of 66th Avenue is in dire need of a complete overhaul, its patchwork of former potholes represents a beacon of municipal progress. Oakland's Public Works Agency lacks the money needed to grind and resurface overworked roads like this — it lost 78 employees to budget cuts, in fact, the very day 66th Avenue was addressed — and the situation could worsen if a recent state proposal to siphon gas tax revenues from local jurisdictions passes. Still, the department remains dedicated to working with what it's got, said Shaff.

In a city notorious for slow decision-making and budget constraints on services, Oakland's Public Works Agency is decidedly efficient when it comes to pothole repair — thanks in part to the vigilant eyes of local bicyclists. Through a fifteen-year-old campaign managed by the East Bay Bicycle Coalition, as well as via a city hotline, bicyclists can report potholes, debris, and other hazards that often shoot straight to the top of street and sidewalk workers' to-do lists.

"It can be invigorating, from the standpoint of getting things resolved," said Ian McDonald, the point person for the East Bay Bicycle Coalition's highly successful road hazard program. He knows where, how, and to whom to report potholes, debris, and other dangers, and he knows who will get the job done (leading the way are Dublin, Pleasanton, and Fremont) and who will probably blow him off (Richmond and the more tenuous jurisdictions of AC Transit and Waste Management are safe bets). In many cases, his reputation precedes him: "They tend to recognize me, because I'm such a pest and have been doing it all these years."

The program's success can be measured in cities like Oakland, which has made great strides in pothole repair in recent years, according to McDonald, who has volunteered as the Oakland-based nonprofit bicycle advocacy group's official "hazard elimination guy" for the past decade. Much of the improvement is due to the city's new reporting system, which employs a user-friendly, though occasionally buggy online form that residents can use to alert the city to potholes and other hazards. There are few other sites like it in the East Bay, said McDonald, and it's done wonders for the city's accountability. Ninety percent of his pothole reports are answered by a tracking number within a day, and about 80 percent are resolved in a matter of weeks.

Oakland's attention to hazard repair ramped up following a 1998 incident in which a bicyclist riding on a scenic road in Alameda County's Dublin Canyon caught his front wheel in the outermost slot of an improperly designed storm drain. His bike came to an sudden stop and he was thrown over the handlebars, landing on his head and severely fracturing his neck. He wound up paralyzed. The bicyclist sued and won a $9.5 million settlement after it was shown that the county had been notified of the drain's dangerous condition months before, yet did nothing to fix it.

Spurred by the case, the City of Oakland proceeded to replace nine hundred of its own potentially hazardous storm drains. The preemptive strike owed at least as much to straight dollars and cents as it did to civic goodwill. Although often disregarded by motorists and pedestrians, parallel storm drains, potholes, and ruts pose significant dangers to bicyclists — and, in cases where preexisting knowledge of the hazard can be proven, significant liabilities to cities. So they tend to be taken seriously.

Jennifer Stanley, one of two full-time bicycle and pedestrian facilities coordinators for the City of Oakland, agrees that the East Bay Bicycle Coalition's hazard reports carry a certain heft. She encourages bicyclists and other users to report directly to Public Works rather than through the Bicycle Coalition's site — at least as a first resort. "If they don't get service, EBBC could add value," she said. She also acknowledges that the Bicycle Coalition plays an important role within Oakland's street maintenance system as its eyes and ears on the ground. "We aren't everywhere," Stanley said. "The city is pretty darn big, so we definitely appreciate hearing about potholes."

With thousands of paying members throughout the East Bay, the Bicycle Coalition is a sturdy organization, and its hazard elimination program a well-oiled machine. Members and guests alike are encouraged to report problems directly through its web site, including ruts and potholes, dangerous drop-offs, trash and debris, improper signage, and precarious railroad crossings. Some of the more diligent members report every week or two, while others submit only once a year. All told, the East Bay Bicycle Coalition pursues a couple hundred potholes and other hazards in both counties every year.

"It keeps our name in front of the Public Works Department," said East Bay Bicycle Coalition executive director Robert Raburn. "A lot of what advocacy involves is just the reminder that we're there, looking over their shoulder. We expect good behavior." Even in the midst of a recession and from famously sluggish cities like Oakland, that's often just what they get. More than any of the Bicycle Coalition's other campaigns, pothole reporting works. "I would say it's our most effective advocacy effort," said Raburn. "It's the one area we have had success in since day one."

That said, even the East Bay Bicycle Coalition has its limits, and other groups have helped fill in the blanks. On May 2, nonprofit journalism organization Spot.us organized the We Hella Hate Potholes Bike Ride to locate and map as many potholes as possible throughout Oakland in one afternoon. Rain kept most bikers away, but the seven who did show identified more than fifty distinct potholes. Pavement conditions are also a central and ongoing concern at Walk Oakland Bike Oakland, an advocacy group geared toward infrastructure development.

Then there's Bob Dort, who commutes by bike from his home in Fremont to his office in Los Altos once a week. On the morning of May 14, Bike to Work Day, he made his first unofficial report to the East Bay Bicycle Coalition: a tire and a scrap of sheet metal were impeding the Dumbarton Bridge's pedestrian and bicycle path. He hoped to learn who was responsible for path maintenance, or perhaps brainstorm some sort of adopt-a-bridge program. What Dort got was something else altogether, something he never saw coming: When he returned across the bridge that afternoon, the path was completely cleared.

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