Rocky Road


Cycling intimately acquaints you with every bump, slice, crease, divot, ledge, ripple and of course pothole in a street, because not noticing means you might get thrown off your steed into bone-breaking and life ending car traffic.

While riding along Lafayette Street in Manhattan, or Bergen Street in Brooklyn, or essentially anywhere in New York City, what I notice is surfaces that can only be described as poor and frankly dangerous for someone on a bike.

New York City is not the exception in this. It’s been true in every city I have ever lived in in the United States, which includes some geographic and cultural diversity. Abroad, that’s not so much the case, particularly in the prosperous countries of Western Europe. They notice the difference when the travel here, let me assure you. A few years ago when I was living in Boston a friend from Germany surveyed the pot-holed streets in Cambridge around the prestigious university of Harvard with some amazement.

"It reminds me of a Third-world country," he said with a grin. "Apparently no one cares!"

I don’t think that’s the case, but streets here do seem unusually bad. Why is that so?


When I swerved to avoid a pothole, I would tend to curse City Hall, and particularly the Department of Transportation. It’s responsible for the streets. Why doesn’t it do a better job maintaining them?

Then it hit me that my logic really wasn’t inclusive enough. Most of the bumps and bruises on city streets relate to what is underneath the streets, because most of the bumps and bruises are caused by repairs after the streets have been opened up for some kind of work on electrical, gas, steam, water, phone or subway lines. And DOT doesn’t own these utilities; other institutions do, including private companies. When Verizon puts in a new phone cable, or Con Edison repairs a gas line, its crews tear up the street, and its crews repair them. And not surprisingly, their crews may not put as high a priority on repairing streets as they do on installing phone cables or gas lines.

Then there are the other public agencies with interest below the street, like the water lines managed by the city’s water department, and the subway and train lines managed by big public agencies that answer to the state.

What it adds up to is many institutions, all working beneath the streets, and then repairing them afterward, often with private subcontractors, which then adds an additional variable to the task of keeping streets neat.

If you look at the relatively smooth streets of places like Germany, France or Scandinavia, what you generally find is fewer private companies laying public infrastructure like water, gas and electric lines, and more public ones.

New York City and American cities follow the Anglo-Saxon model, derived from Great Britain, of letting private companies do much of the primary work in installing infrastructure. This saves taxes in the short run, but can create inefficiencies and bumpy streets in the long run. As I said in my latest book that just came out in paperback, Beneath the Metropolis, London didn’t even have a public water system until early in the 20th century. Before that it had a half dozen competing private water companies, all tearing up streets to lay their own lines, (and sometimes sabotaging their competitors). New York had a similar condition with its gas and electric lines before a company with the name Edison "consolidated" them into one corporation.

Having multiple private companies and public agencies responsible for the care of the street creates many opportunities for miscommunications and poor or faulty work. Folks I know at DOT tell me quite a few horror stories.

Is there a way we can make our streets better, without completely reorganizing our economy? There is, and that is better public oversight. As I have talked about regarding other issues in the city, an important but relatively neglected part of government is diligent and conscientious oversight of private companies doing public work. This can be making sure a developer puts in the right kind of escalator in a subway station, to making sure there are good paving standards for private companies to follow, and having enough resources to make sure those paving standards are met.

While Mayor Bloomberg’s recent plan to send out squads of folks on foot and bike to methodically inspect the quality of the streets is a good one, what is needed even more is rigorous enforcement of standards that already exist for the care and maintenance of streets, regardless of who is doing the work.

Flickr photos by JSSchumacher and Susan NYC

  • Peter

    Have you ever been to a third world country? Believe me, the roads in NYC are infinitely better than most of the roads I’ve seen in Southeast Asia.

  • SomeoneWhoKnows

    Faulty coordination, inattention to standards, and a byzantine organizational structure involving public and private entities all play a part in the poor condition of the city’s streets. But the real answer is money. The operating budget for street repair is shockingly small — it pays for fewer than 30 people to repair all the potholes in the city and covers no other treatment (e.g., $0 for preventive repair).

    The capital budget is a little better, but still falls well short of anything like a reasonable level. Best practice “replacement cycles” for street resurfacing is every 10-15 years (depending on usage levels); The city has has a ~25-year cycle. For reconstruction, best practice is 30-50 years. The city has a ~300-year cycle (that’s not a typo). PlanNYC makes it a little better, but is pretty humble in its goals — it defines “state of good repair” as 15% of streets in lousy condition, and includes a proposal for achieving this in about 10 years. Enforcement resources for keeping the utility companies and contractors honest is also a fraction of what is needed.

    Beginning with Dinkins, Giuliani, and Bloomberg all cut these budgets. There have been some restorations here and there, but the total level of work funded is about half what it was at the end of the Koch administration. If you don’t believe me, look at the last 20 years worth of MMRs. It’s all there.

  • brent

    My favorite road hazards are the curbside sewer grates with long open slits that are about 1-1/2″ wide- much wider than any of my bike tires!!

  • BicyclesOnly

    Poorly or non-repaired utility cuts are my pet peeve, and there is no fiscal excuse. The utility companies should be required to pay for the cost of a follow-up inspection by DoT every time they get a permit to do a cut, and failed inspections should mean mandatory penalties and expedited repairs at the utilities’ cost.

  • Ryan

    Perhaps a better safeguard would be to make the DOT responsible for all street repairs, and require that private companies contract the city/DOT to do cut repairs.

  • Ryan

    .. or include the cost of street repair in the permit.

  • I hear that utility cut repairs often don’t last, even when they are initially done well. When the road surface expands in the summer and contracts in the winter, it opens gaps between the patch and the rest of the roadway. When water gets in those gaps, it can make the patch subside.

  • Jonathan

    Alex, two weeks ago you were complaining about how there weren’t any more streetcars, this month you’re complaining about crummy road surfaces.

    When I see tracks in the street, I see, in your words this week, “surfaces that can only be described as poor and frankly dangerous for someone on a bike.”

    Is it too much to ask for a little consistency in your posts? You are starting to sound like a senile aunt who just likes to complain and has her hearing aid turned down too far to hear any cogent responses.

  • Nick Carey

    >You are starting to sound like a senile aunt who
    >just likes to complain and has her hearing aid
    >turned down too far to hear any cogent responses.

    OUCH! Must we be so abrasive?

  • ln

    Is it just my route or do all the utility cuts seem to go straight through the bike lane?

    How about all the agencies actually talking to each other and fixing the infastructure when they repave the street? On our block, it took about 2 weeks after repaving the street before some private company tore a hole in it to fix something or other then paved it over badly

    And of course it takes forever or never to repaint the bike lane.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    I still don’t understand why we have to tear the streets up for every little utility job. My dad lived above Columbus Avenue for thirty years, and one day he said to me, “Why don’t they just put in a tunnel that’s big enough for all the utilities they can imagine, and for someone to crawl through and repair them when necessary?”

    I mean, okay, you probably don’t want electric lines catching on fire next to natural gas and steam pipes, but other than that, why not just run a single tunnel? There must be cities that do this. You could even run freight trains through them.

  • Ryan

    >When I see tracks in the street, I see, in your words this week, “surfaces that can only be described as poor and frankly dangerous for someone on a bike.”

    >Comment by Jonathan

    Are a lot of bikers riding in the middle of the streets these days? At least you know when/where to expect rails in the street.

    Maybe Jonathan just needs to take a chill pill.

  • flp


    ha ha ha hoo hee ha ha!

    oh, jeez, inter agency communication?! now THAT is a laugh!

  • Ando

    Semis cause a whole lot of damage to roads because of their weight. Think how many of those you see around. And it never seems like the traffic police feel like enforcing where they can and shouldn’t go.

  • mfs

    Don’t forget that most of the cities in Europe you look up to totally rebuilt their infrastructure shortly following WWII. That’s why they have more Combined Heat and Power plants, as well as combined utility conduits.

    Of course, we’ve had 70 years to catch up.

  • Hi, I’m Rags

    Why not have the company that does the repair mark it in some way, like with a piece of plastic in the asphalt similar to the Toynbee tiles? Then, allow these companies to be sued by adjacent building owners or by anyone who gets injured by a bad repair?

    I used to live in the West Village, on a cobblestone street that was degenerating into a dirt road. This was when they were putting in cable TV and the guys who put the cobbles back would have no idea what they were doing. 3 months after they left the stones were like Shane McGowan’s teeth. The parts of the cobblestone pavement that had never been torn up were so smooth you could bike comfortably on them.

  • Obs

    Paving is actually front and center on DOT’s web site –

    Says repaving is up and includes a “know your enemy” recognition feature for potholes, cuts etc.

  • Eric

    Trolley tracks are regular and straight and easily avoided. Potholes and sinkholes and construction plates are haphazard and dangerous as hell. Cut Alex some slack.

    Besides, if there were more trolleys, they might provide a sometime alternative to cycling.

  • Andy B from Jersey

    We ARE a third world country in many ways when it comes to roads. Potholes are just about nonexistent in many NW European cities and there, just about all the utilities are underground. I’ve never seen a utility cut in any Germany city street.

    Also when they build a city street in Germany the foundation starts about 3 feet below the final road surface which puts it BELOW THE FROST LINE. What a concept! Put the base of the road below the frost line then you’ll never have to worry about frost heaving. This is civil engineering 101. Build it right the first time and then you can forget about it for the next 50 years.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    Yeah the Germans have great engineers and great trains. But our engineers know about the frost line too. We have a much higher level of privatization of services and contracting, many overlapping political jurisdictions and a much lower level of taxation.

    Most of the transportation infrastructure in Europe is funded by the very high gas taxes. Choices abound. But since they trust each other and their governments enough to actually tax and spend together for the civic good they have both better roads and better mass transit (and better bike lanes) than we do.

    What is third world about us is our primitive, atavistic, distrust of each other and our political leaders.

  • paulb

    You know, in his book Beneath the Metropolis Alex describes how Paris runs its utility lines along the ceilings of its sewer tunnels. It’s pretty good.

    The thing is, as I see it, alongside the physical infrastructure there’s also a figurative infrastructure of systems for training, apprenticeship, promotions, career paths, organization of departments…. Traditions. That’s what really makes those glassy streets and hissing, smooth trains possible. The DOT and the subway people have state of the art equipment. It just doesn’t produce state of the art results.

    Still, I’m not sure I really want a European system here and I wonder when somebody makes a speech about turning New York into some kind of a “Copenhagen on the Hudson.”

    I’m veering off topic ain’t I? The city could do a better job of paving.

  • Thanks for the comments folks, I always learn something. Like this report in comment 19 that Germany actually digs its streets deeper than us, and thus avoids many of the maintenance problems we have. I had no idea.

    Commenter 21 is correct in that Paris does house many of its utility lines in the relatively cavernous sewers that Haussmann installed in Paris in the 1850s. These sewers actually have little street signs in them, and you can walk through them and know exactly where you are. You can see the pipes and cables that handle water, electricity, phone lines, etc. neatly housed in the upper part of the curved ceilings. I talk about this in my book Beneath the Metropolis, as paulb said.

  • Hilary

    What about the crocodiles in the Paris sewers? Don’t they eat the wires?

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    The crocodiles are so full of fat little French children that they have no room for wires!

    Seriously, the Paris sewer museum is a must-see for any urbanist visitor. Sure, you should go up in the Eiffel Tower, visit the Vieux Louvre, ride the trams, stroll the boulevards and rent a Vélib. But the sewer museum is where it’s at. And it’s much less crowded than the Eiffel Tower.

    Sadly, the official web page is only in French. The English list of museums doesn’t even mention it, but there’s a Wikipedia page.

    I also recommend the canal tours.

  • This city website recommended by #17 is really quite good. It’s a little education about the different types of potholes, what causes them, and who repairs them. Check it out at

  • empire city subway has been building and maintaining the telco conduits and manholes since the 1890’s. i think the standards were higher pre divesture, 1980’s , now it is a free for all


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