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February was the biggest month ever for pothole repair requests in LA

Want a pothole filled? Report it to 311

Amid record rainfall and cold weather, a third record was broken in February—the most pothole-filling requests ever made through LA’s 311 service.

An astounding 7,931 requests were made for pothole repairs, says Greg Spotts, assistant director of the city’s Bureau of Street Services.

Since the city began keeping digital records of requests, the biggest month for pothole fixes had previously been February 2017—an El Niño year—with around 4,000 requests logged that month. January 2019 handily beat that record, says Spotts, and then February 2019 nearly doubled it.

More than half of those reports came in through LA’s 311 app.

“It’s a large city and the public is our eyes and ears to let us know what’s happening out there,” he says. “We have supervisors proactively inspecting their maintenance areas, but the quickest way for us to know is for the constituents to tell us.”

Spotts says in normal non-storm conditions, it takes an average of three days for a pothole to get filled. But his numbers are almost as impressive during storm season.

In January, pothole requests were completed in 2.6 days, and in February, even with heavy rain, the turnaround was 4.2 days. (This is just for street potholes, he says, alley potholes are not fixed as quickly.)

These numbers sounded remarkable to me, so I took a walk with Spotts recently to learn how his team of about 1,000 employees maintain 6,500 miles of streets.

Anyone can watch Spotts in action through his Twitter feed, which is filled with gloriously nerdy posts showing zebra-stripe crosswalk installations and tree-trimming crews scaling the urban canopy. After storms, Spotts shares data about what’s keeping his teams busy—about half of street service employees focus on customer-requested work.

“We used to monitor these events on a legal pad,” Spotts says.

He’s not joking. When it came to potholes, crews would go out after storms to inspect damage, submit hand-written notes to a centralized office, then wait to be dispatched for repairs.

That all changed in 2015, when the department received a grant to equip pothole inspectors with tablets. Now, says Spotts, supervisors in each of the city’s 24 maintenance districts can get real-time updates while they’re out in the field.

“When they’re about to leave a location, they re-query to see if something new has come in,” he says. Spotts estimates that because of this tech assist, his teams are inspecting one-third to one-half of all pothole reports on the same day that they come in, leading to speedier fixes.

Spotts recently expanded this methodology to his department’s urban forestry division, which handles the tree emergencies and “palm fronds down” requests (yes, palm fronds get their own 311 category). In a single wind event, the city can receive anywhere from between 1,000 to 1,500 tree-related requests.

Having this data digitized and mapped also helps Spotts’s team see which parts of the city are having the most requests fulfilled—and which neighborhoods might need more attention. After tabulating his department’s turnaround time, Spotts compares those response times across all 24 maintenance districts to make sure areas are getting equal levels of service.

Making sure each part of LA is served equally sometimes means sending crews out to survey what’s not being reported. This month, Los Angeles City Councilmember Nury Martinez secured funding for a pothole blitz where street services teams are working overtime identifying and repair potholes. Spotts reports that street services teams inspected over 1,200 unreported potholes across the city earlier this month, making repairs to 525 of those potholes so far.

Walking with Spotts was a revelation. I don’t think I’d ever truly understood how many overlapping agencies work in LA’s public right of way—or the coordination required among them. It also made me wonder what other city services could guarantee a three-day turnaround. It can take months to repair a stretch of uneven pavement that’s making a sidewalk unusable for someone walking or using a wheelchair.

LA’s notoriously broken sidewalks can be reported via 311, but fixes aren’t deployed in the same way as potholes. Under the city’s sidewalk repair program, reconstruction projects are assessed by the Bureau of Engineering, which prioritizes a list of repairs for the Bureau of Street Services that address accessibility issues first.

Even then, someone reporting a bad crack in the pavement or missing curb ramp might not see a fix for weeks. In 2018, the city received more requests for sidewalk repairs in a single month than it was was able to fix in a 12-month period.

Over the past year, the prioritization of those fixes has been criticized when mature trees have been ripped out to repair sidewalks. But that might be changing, thanks to some innovation from Spotts’ department.

Last summer, 16 ficus trees were slated to be cut down on the 1200 block of Cherokee Avenue in Hollywood as part of a sidewalk repair project. After uproar from residents, 14 of the trees were saved in a reprieve from Councilmember David Ryu, who tapped the city’s urban forestry division to develop alternatives to tree removal.

Working with property owners, Bureau of Street Services and Bureau of Engineering designed a series of meanders that curve slightly onto each property, repairing the sidewalk while preserving the trees. The alternatives were presented in December and some of the new sidewalks are already installed.

To Spotts, having his department transformed into a “digitized, high-speed operation” has made all the difference for his team’s impact. “We’re leaders among city departments and we’re proud to be the leaders.”

But he could never do it without his team of on-the-ground 311 reporters—so keep those requests coming, he says.

“Reports are really coming in from all over the city, from all 99 neighborhood councils,” says Spotts. “Something really great about LA is there are engaged citizens across all socioeconomic groups and the city takes great care to provide equitable care to everyone.”

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