Toronto’s potholes were the No. 1 complaint to 311 last year — and they’re costing us more money

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In an occasional series, the Star delves into 311 data to see what our concerns say about the city. In this fourth instalment, we look at the number one complaint in Toronto: potholes.

In a land not far away, next to a castle on a hill, lies a “republic” with a whimsical approach to dealing with the city.

A pothole graces a street in the west-end “Republic of Rathnelly” neighbourhood, near Casa Loma. It's the number two neighbourhood in the city for complaints about potholes to 311 — and the site of last year’s infamous pothole tomato plants.
A pothole graces a street in the west-end “Republic of Rathnelly” neighbourhood, near Casa Loma. It’s the number two neighbourhood in the city for complaints about potholes to 311 — and the site of last year’s infamous pothole tomato plants.  (Steve Russell / Toronto Star)

Last summer a massive hole that sat unfixed for months on a side street just west of Avenue Rd., steps from Casa Loma, was transformed into an impromptu community garden.

“One of the kids who lived on Poplar Plains Cres. just for a lark threw some tomato seeds into the pothole, and low and behold they started to grow,” recalls Republic of Rathnelly neighbourhood historian Pym Buitenhuis.

“Because the hole was there for so long they evolved into fully grown plants and there were hundreds of tomatoes on them.”

Rathnelly, with boundaries of Avenue Rd., Poplar Plains Cres., Poplar Plains Rd. and the CP Rail tracks, lies in Ward 12 (Toronto — St. Paul’s), which made 1,613 requests to the city’s non-emergency 311 hotline about potholes in 2018.

Read more:

The Fixer: It’s been a tolerable winter for potholes — so far

Toronto is known for dead raccoons and potholes. The city’s 311 nerve centre knows this reputation is well-earned

Is this Scarborough area the noisiest neighbourhood in Toronto?

In a construction-plagued city of aging infrastructure, potholes are a constant scourge almost everywhere. Potholes were the number one complaint to 311 in 2018 with almost 20,000 service requests.

Ward 8 (Eglinton—Lawrence) nudged Ward 12 out of top spot for the most pothole 311 complaints at 1,657; and Ward 11 (University—Rosedale) rounded out the top three at 1,214.

Potholes can come with a big price tag for drivers when they cause damage to cars, and they’re a danger for cyclists, leading them to fall or swerve into traffic. But they’re also costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars as the amount the city pays out on pothole damage claims has skyrocketed, from roughly $245,000 in 2015 to about $807,000 in 2018.

A 2011 city ombudsman’s report found more than 90 per cent of small claims for compensation for pothole damage, flooding from sewer backups and fallen tree limb damage were dismissed by its insurance adjuster. But in 2018, just over half of claims, 55 per cent, were paid out. As well, more drivers made claims in 2018, almost 4,000 compared to 867 in 2015.

The city says this is because of a rough winter that saw three full freeze and thaw cycles, which had a dramatic impact on potholes.

Rathnelly neighbourhood historian Pym Buitenhuis wants the city to come up with a long-term strategy address potholes.
Rathnelly neighbourhood historian Pym Buitenhuis wants the city to come up with a long-term strategy address potholes.  (Toronto Star)

Buitenhuis believes the Rathnelly potholes are “exacerbated” because of persistent work around the High Level Pumping Station on Poplar Plains Rd, central control for the city’s water distribution system.

“You call and you call and you call and you log complaints and nothing seems to happen at any great speed,” she says.

“If a whole waft of tomatoes was able to grow over the space of four months in a hole in the road, clearly something’s not right in the state of Denmark.”

It was a “classic” response for a community that’s long had a “tongue and cheek attitude toward anything to do with bureaucracy,” she says.

The neighbourhood was the site of a tense battle over stopping the Spadina Expressway in the 1960s. Out of that fight emerged a feisty and fierce spirit that saw it “secede” from Canada in 1967 in protest, adopting its own Queen (longtime resident Eileen Robertson, then 97), head of state (Bubbles the poodle), playful name, flag and coat of arms.

The coat of arms now graces street signs in the small but mighty Republic of Rathnelly. Its red brick two- and three-storey homes give it a stately air even on a wet, grey Sunday, where three snowmen wearing bright-coloured toques preside over piles of melting slush.

There’s no sign of the epic hole, which was eventually fixed. But there are plenty of puddles, cracks in the road and black asphalt markings that show past repairs.

Buitenhuis’ neighbour Marnie Gold says the city has been quick to respond to her other 311 complaints, such as those regarding too-long grass in a park nearby. But it’s slower to act on her calls about potholes, she says, and the tomato plants show it.

“The city roads in general are a mess,” she says. “Look how ridiculous this is, you can have like a farm.”

Tomato plants growing in a hole in the Republic of Rathnelly, near Casa Loma, last summer.
Tomato plants growing in a hole in the Republic of Rathnelly, near Casa Loma, last summer.  (Amanda Myers)

City spokesperson Diala Homaidan said in an email that city crews could not find a leak or water main break in the initial Rathnelly hole so the area was backfilled with stone to monitor for any potential leak in spring 2018.

Crews returned to the site in mid-August and determined “there were fractures on the sewer main.” After repairs they completed a permanent backfill with asphalt on Aug. 18, making it fully driveable again.

Another city spokesperson, Eric Holmes, said staff are constantly working to manage the number of potholes on roadways and the resulting claims. This includes pothole-fixing “blitzes” every year as required, re-decking part of the Gardiner in 2018 and an ongoing review of materials used to fix potholes.

The city fixed 133,861 potholes over winter 2018, up from 94,069 in winter 2015, according to numbers provided to the Star.

“Toronto has endured more freeze-thaw cycles over the past few years than what was considered usual. These cycles have had a dramatic impact on our roads and often result in an increased number of potholes,” Holmes said.

“Staff are working hard to repair as many potholes as possible, as quickly as possible.”

The most common streets for pothole complaints based on intersection locations from 311 service requests are Lawrence Ave. E (366), followed by Bathurst St. (347) and Yonge St. (283). Just over half of 311 service requests are logged by intersection.

Jared Kolb, executive director of Cycle Toronto, says potholes are a serious concern for cyclists, as “cars have advanced shock absorption systems. Bikes do not.”

“Anytime you’re driving your car and you feel a pothole, try to imagine what that must feel like for a cyclist,” he said in an email.

They can also cause cyclists to “swerve unexpectedly” into traffic, he said, noting a backlog of funding for road repairs impacts the most vulnerable road users the most.

Potholes are just “a reality” in a place with such extreme weather and fluctuations in temperatures, says Raymond Chan, government relations specialist with Canadian Automobile Association (CAA) — South Central Ontario.

Moisture can seep into cracks in the ground, which expand when the weather changes. When cars roll over them and the pavement or concrete starts to break apart, it can cause pothole.

Toronto’s problem is “quite significant and doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon,” he says.

“The more time that you allow for that concrete to break up the more costly it’s going to get,” he says, both for the city to fix the potholes and to pay out motorists whose vehicles are damaged by them.

“We need to make this issue more of a priority than it currently is,” Chan adds.

The city fixed 133,861 potholes over winter 2018, up from 94,069 in winter 2015, according to numbers provided to the Star.
The city fixed 133,861 potholes over winter 2018, up from 94,069 in winter 2015, according to numbers provided to the Star.  (Toronto Star)

But Carleton University professor Abd El Halim thinks it’s the way asphalt is laid down that’s the real problem.

He’s developed a special machine called the AMIR road compactor (Asphalt Multi-Integrated Roller) for paving roads. Instead of oscillating steel wheels that most rollers have, the AMIR has a rubber belt to make sure the asphalt is distributed constantly and consistently.

Steel rollers, he says, leave cracks. Water gets into those cracks, freezes and expands, making them even bigger. Eventually they become potholes.

El Halim developed the first prototype in Cairo, Egypt, where he’s from, in 1987. Since then it’s been used to pave a road in Sydney, Australia, leading from the airport to Olympic Village, he says. Closer to home, construction company Tomlinson started using it on bridge projects in 2012.

But it hasn’t quite caught on.

“If you go on a cracked airplane you’re compromising your life, but if you go on a cracked pavement you’re not really compromising your life,” El Halim says.

“So nobody cares.”

Instead the roads are weakened when the city merely repairs potholes, “because you’re not really solving the major problem, you’re just hiding it.”

Back in the Republic of Rathnelly, Buitenhuis understands the city is growing and that workers are doing their best.

But she feels that paving over potholes is just a “Band-Aid.” A long-term strategy to co-ordinate street work across silos in the city, and with the pothole repair crews, would have a deeper impact, she says.

At any rate, it’s a problem that’s not going away any time soon, and the city should be prepared.

“All of us have observed a general decay in the roads, and as the snow melts … the number of potholes is going to be catastrophic I think for the city,” she says.

“Spring is coming.”

May Warren is a breaking news reporter based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @maywarren11

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Toronto is known for dead raccoons and potholes. The city’s 311 nerve centre knows this reputation is well-earned

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In a new series, the Star delves into 311 data to see what our concerns say about the city. In the first instalment, we go behind the curtain at 311’s headquarters and learn that, with our Top 5 gripes, we’re living up to our raccoon-loving, pothole-hating reputation.

One of the strangest calls Toronto’s 311 service has ever received came during the 2015 Pan-Am games: someone wanted to know if a dead body would qualify them to drive in the high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane.

Director Gary Yorke stands at the centre of 311 Toronto’s headquarters on John St. The service answers roughly 4,000 calls a day — 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year in 180 languages.
Director Gary Yorke stands at the centre of 311 Toronto’s headquarters on John St. The service answers roughly 4,000 calls a day — 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year in 180 languages.  (Steve Russell / Toronto Star)

The answer was no, recalls Gary Yorke, director of 311 Toronto, from behind his desk overlooking the floor at the call centre’s Metro Hall headquarters on John St.

A client solution rep, or CSR as they’re known, told the caller (who was travelling in a hearse) that to travel in the lane, all persons in the vehicle must be alive.

It was one of two strange calls that stuck out for Yorke, who’s been in his role for about three and a half years.

“The other one is ‘I have a turkey on for three hours, when should I take it out?’” says Yorke, with a laugh.

Up two escalators at 55 John St., the 311 nerve centre is a place where white noise streams through speakers to calm the din of employees taking roughly 4,000 calls each day on everything from garbage pickup up to dead animals — 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year in 180 languages.

In a city that tops Canada’s worst roads lists every year and where the unofficial mascot is a raccoon, 311 operatives may have the best gauge of Toronto’s day-to-day affairs, with the service’s data backing up the city’s reputation.

Toronto’s Top 5 service requests for 2018 so far, according to 311’s own analysis provided to the Star, are: storm cleanup (13,884), pot holes (11,631), wildlife cadavers (11,356), injured or distressed wildlife (10,432), and property standards related to bylaw enforcement (10,087).

“I think that our residents are concerned about our infrastructure, the property that they use every day. They’re very intelligent and diligent about it, and they require responses and information,” Yorke says.

Given wildlife concerns made two of the top five spots, the data suggests #DeadraccoonTO, the critter whose body was honoured with an impromptu viral memorial in 2015, was far from a unique occurrence.

In fact, 311 data from many municipalities seem to suggest you can know a place by what it grumbles about.

In New York, the top service request, according to the city’s open data portal, aside from “other” is “noise-residential.”

On the other side of the continent in San Francisco, one of the most unaffordable cities in the world, one of the top calls were of “encampment reports,” which refer to homeless camps, according to that city’s own open data.

Vancouver’s top service requests, spokesperson Jag Sandhu says, are for street tree work.

The types of service requests that come in to Toronto’s 311 are “relatively the same” over the years, says Yorke, with pitfalls such as potholes, property standards, garbage pickup and noise reoccurring.

The area of the city with the most service requests (going by the old 44-ward model) is Ward 16, Eglinton-Lawrence (10,228, according to 311) followed by Ward 25, Don Valley West (10,181) and Ward 22, St. Paul’s (9,965). Ward 8, York West had the least at 4,045, by 311’s stats. Data is not available for the new 25 wards.

With nearly 650 categories, less popular requests range from dogs off leash (400 in 2018, according to open data), to sewer odour (465), bees/wasps (265) appliance emergency (58) and sinkholes (780).

But Yorke is quick to point out that he doesn’t see them as “complaints.”

“There will always be complaints,” he says. Service requests make up about 30 per cent of calls — people calling, for example, about a pothole that needs to be fixed. But about 70 per cent of their business is just “general inquiries,” questions staff can easily answer.

They don’t consider a call a complaint unless the city worker who comes to fix something is, say, really rude or runs over the family dog in the process.

On a recent November day at the call centre — a sun-filled space that was once home to preamalgamation Metro Council — a few Halloween decorations are still up: caution tape, witches and cobwebs.

“Because of the stressful nature of the business, you gotta have fun,” Yorke says.

On the wall, flanked by two TVs, one playing CP24 and the other CNN, is a huge screen showing how many callers are in the queue (15), how many employees are on calls (18), and how many are not ready — maybe making notes or going to the washroom (16).

It’s a barometer Yorke is constantly monitoring.

“This screen is our lifeline,” he says. “No call’s the same.”

They have a council mandate to answer 80 per cent of calls within 75 seconds, he adds, a target they’re proud of exceeding last year, with a wait time of “about 44 seconds.”

The challenge is when there’s a “major event” such as a storm or a very confusing city election, and calls skyrocket.

The nerve centre at 311 Toronto with its screen showing how many callers are in the queue, how many employees are on calls, and how many are not ready -- perhaps making notes or going to the washroom.
The nerve centre at 311 Toronto with its screen showing how many callers are in the queue, how many employees are on calls, and how many are not ready — perhaps making notes or going to the washroom.  (Steve Russell)

The 311 team doesn’t actually handle the issues themselves, but either get information for people or direct the service requests to the appropriate city divisions.

“The way I see it is like, we’re like the coach,” Yorke says. “The coach calls the plays, but the players execute the play.”

The first 311 system in North America was launched in Baltimore, Md., in 1996, with the help of a $300,000 federal grant, reported the Baltimore Sun at the time.

It was an experiment to see if a non-emergency public line could help ease the burden for a congested 911 system. The Sun noted 60 per cent of the 1.8 million 911 calls Baltimore police dispatchers answered the previous year were for nonemergencies.

“People call 911 for everything from directions to the ballpark to the removal of double-parked cars,” read the article.

The 311 model proved popular and soon other major cities such as Chicago, L.A and, in 2003, New York adopted it.

Toronto’s 311 service was officially launched in September 2009 as a way to centralize city services and “make it easier for the resident” to access the city, without having to search through multiple divisions, Yorke says.

With an annual budget of about $18.6 million, 311 now has 3.4 million contacts a year compared to 1.5 million about three years ago. That figure includes contacts by phone, Twitter, email and visitors to their online “knowledge base,” a kind of self-serve for city information.

There were 359,671 service requests in 2018 so far, according to 311’s own open data posted on the city’s website. That’s compared to 396,379 for all of 2017 and 406,291 in 2016, up from 254,218 in 2010, the first year data is available.

Yorke describes 311 Toronto as “going through an evolutionary stage,” adding they have people coming from places such as Shanghai, Sweden, Finland and Botswana to learn from them.

“It’s kind of cool to just find out what other people are doing,” he says. “We all have the same pains.”

At the call centre there’s a sense of calm, even though it’s a hive of activity on this recent weekday.

On a pillar is a poster about “customer connections,” showing, fittingly, two raccoons navigating a call with “active listening,” “empathy” and “personal connection.”

“I haven’t had garbage in weeks!” says one. “I understand,” responds the other.

“The new green bin locks are just too good.” “Ha Ha!”

Yorke sits behind a desk that overlooks the floor. Behind him are Spiderman mugs and figurines — a way to connect with staff, he says.

And, like the superhero, 311 does have a role to play in watching over the city. It’s the control centre that keeps Toronto ticking, one dead raccoon at a time.

“From a moral compass, with power comes responsibility,” says Yorke.

“Basically we’re one of the organizations that really doesn’t sleep, and we have really a good pulse of what’s going on in the city.”

May Warren is a breaking news reporter based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @maywarren11

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