Imagine Batman and Robin, two masked vigilantes fighting crime by night on the streets of Gotham. Now, replace Gotham with Oakland, California. And instead of crime, think potholes.
For the past several weeks, two anonymous men have been taking to the streets and filling some of the city's many potholes. They've posted pictures of their work on Instagram and even have a GoFundMe page that's raised more than $2,000 as of Tuesday afternoon.
#1- These are 2 #potholes filled by the @potholevigilantes last week in #Oakland. They've put up signs to let #neighbors know about their work & how to donate to the next pothole repair. pic.twitter.com/CDfHBGqELW
— Anser Hassan (@AnserHassan) May 6, 2019
In theory, Oakland residents can call 311 to report potholes. But there's no guarantee the city will do anything about it. Enter the "pothole vigilantes," as they like to call themselves. "We love the city, we hope they fill the potholes faster. And if they're not going to do it, we'll do it ourselves," one of the men told KGO. "We have lived in a few other places, and none of them have been as bad in terms of road repair as Oakland," the other said.
It's a real problem, and one that the local government has not yet been able to solve. Drivers in the Bay Area spend significantly more money on road-related vehicle repairs than most other drivers around the country, according to the results of a study published in October by the national transportation research group TRIP and reported in the San Francisco Chronicle. Bad roads cause drivers in San Francisco and Oakland to spend about $1,049 in additional maintenance costs on a yearly basis, much higher than the national average, which is under $600. Moreover, 71 percent of roads in the San Francisco-Oakland area are in poor condition, the study says.
For the pothole vigilantes, fixing the roads on their own isn't all that difficult, and both men are taking safety precautions. "It's quite easy. All you gotta do is just…brush the debris out, fill the pothole up…and then just tamper it down," one of the men told KTVU. "We try to do it after 9 p.m. once the traffic dies down and then we put our hazard lights on, make sure it's safe," his partner added.
It only takes between five and 10 minutes to fill a pothole, the men say, and they've already filled at least six. Each job costs between $50 and $100. "Literally, you just buy the mix in a bag. You pour it in the pothole, you tamper it down, drive over it right away, and it's done. You don't even have to mix it," one of the men told KGO.
The pothole vigilantes' sentiment is one we've seen repeatedly when the government fails to fix the roads. Consider the masked anarchists who took to the streets of Portland in 2017 to patch up potholes (and don't forget about the transportation bureau spokesperson who suggested they might be breaking the law). In the case of the Oakland vigilantes, Oakland's Public Works Department is a bit more sympathetic, though it still insists that private citizens shouldn't undertake such tasks on their own. "This kind of activity tells us what we often hear from our community: They are frustrated and fed up with the pavement condition in their neighborhood," agency spokesperson Sean Maher told the Chronicle. "We can't recommend anyone do this work themselves, not least because it raises safety issues while people are working in the streets."
Maher highlighted a proposal that would spend $100 million over three years to improve the city's roads. The plan would triple Oakland's yearly spending on paving construction and spend "$75M on local streets to improve neighborhood quality of life," according to the city's website.
Of course, there's no guarantee that implementing the proposal will actually accomplish this goal. For one thing, many residents have already complained that the money will be focused on poorer neighborhoods, meaning the roads in more well-to-do parts of the city won't get fixed at all.
Time and again, private citizens like Oakland's pothole vigilantes have shown that they're much more adept at this type of thing than the local government. Consider the time that Domino's answered the age-old question: Who builds roads in a libertarian society? The pizza chain helped fix roads in numerous states around the country. It was the perfect solution, as Reason's Christian Britschgi noted at the time.
Or remember the good Samaritans in Washington, D.C., who spent all of two hours and $150 last month to paint a crosswalk that the city hadn't done anything about for six months. Or perhaps my favorite instance, in which 12-year-old Monte Scott of Michigan used a garbage can full of dirt to fill at least 15 potholes near his family's home in March because the government wouldn't do it.
What do all these stories have in common? They're all examples of private citizens getting real results after local governments failed or refused to keep the roads safe.
As for Oakland's pothole vigilantes, fixing the roads isn't something they want to do for a few weeks and then give up on. "We are creating a platform where frustrated community members can locate, donate, and fill the pesky pot hole issues," their GoFundMe reads. "Imagine Uber meets potholes."