What’s with all the potholes in Atlanta?

The urban scourge we want to (but won’t) exterminate

Why so many potholes in Atlanta

Photograph by Cappi Thompson / Moment / Getty Images

When it comes to transportation issues, there’s perhaps only one thing motorists and cyclists, skaters and scooters, walkers and wheelchair users, the rich and the poor can agree on: Potholes suck. So, after years of scraping our undercarriages, flipping over our handlebars, twisting our ankles—or just grumbling in traffic—Atlantans are asking for answers. Here they are.

How are potholes born?
When a heavy vehicle makes contact with cracked, water-softened asphalt, something magical happens: The earth opens up to spawn a pit of despair infamous for wreaking costly and dangerous havoc on unwary travelers—or, rather, the pressure from the weight of the automobile compromises the weakened spot of road where water has seeped in, causing it to collapse. Nationwide, potholes accounted for upwards of $26 billion in damages last year alone, according to AAA.

What is the City of Atlanta doing to fix its pothole-peppered roadways?
In 2019, then Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms launched the city’s first transportation department, aiming to centralize transportation infrastructure improvement efforts that had long been handled by three different offices. It was a start, but potholes kept popping up. So, in April, new Mayor Andre Dickens revived Atlanta’s old “Pothole Posse,” a task force—now under the purview of the new DOT—dedicated to filling at least 30 potholes a day (though it’s been averaging more than 50). The posse filled in more than 2,400 potholes between its rebirth and June 7, per the DOT. The longevity of that solution is up for debate. While some companies claim to have the permanent pothole fix, most urban planners admit filling them in is just a temporary remedy.

Those efforts should be propped up, in part, by some of the $460 million in transportation investments Atlantans approved during the May 24 election—$32 million of which is supposed to go toward roadway repairs.

Is there a universe in which Atlanta is pothole-free?
As long as Atlanta remains an automobile-dependent city, its streets will demand maintenance. A pothole-free Atlanta is a pipe dream, says Matthew Garbett, cofounder of urbanist nonprofit ThreadATL, because, even if the city drifts toward a mass transit–focused mindset, we’ll still have buses, delivery trucks, and more to beat up our roads.

Additionally, “our pothole-related woes are less about transportation than they are about budget problems based on poor land-use decisions,” Garbett continues. In short, because Atlanta is so littered with underused surface parking lots, and because its zoning code makes tall and dense development difficult, the city isn’t reaping enough tax revenue to efficiently fix its roads, bridges, sidewalks, bike paths, and other corridors.

How does the city decide when to slap down one of those awful metal plates over roadway imperfections?
That’s determined on a case-by-case basis, according to the mayor’s office. Sometimes, DOT employees dispatch the ugly, noisy road Band-Aids to stop cracks from giving way to full-blown potholes; sometimes, they’re used to keep minor potholes from becoming ponds that would further trap water and endanger travelers.

What do I do if a pothole busts my tire, wrecks my suspension, or makes me stub my toe?
You can always sue the city by submitting a claim to its legal department. The office fields hundreds of complaints annually, paying out damages to a small portion of the folks who appeal. Between 2015 and 2019—the most complete data available as of press time—the City of Atlanta wrote checks to 541 (or about 27 percent) of the 2,000 complainants, totaling nearly $600,000 in payouts.

This article appears in our August 2022 issue.