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How Kansas City, Mo., Is Snuffing Out Potholes Before They Appear

Public works and IT officials use traffic and other data to predict where the next pothole will form — allowing it to repair or resurface 35 to 45 miles of streets per year versus the previous 20 to 25 miles.

Street conditions in Kansas City, Mo., are bound to improve in coming years thanks to the development of “pothole prediction” technology. Using various data streams, work crews are able focus on more preventative maintenance — stopping the pothole before it starts — rather than a full-scale street repair after a pothole has occurred.

“What we wanted to do is find a way to generate real ROI [return on investment],” said Chief Innovation Officer Bob Bennett, explaining the thinking behind developing the pothole prediction program, currently in pilot phase.

The second reason for developing the program, he added, "was to engage not just our city staff at the mayoral level, but at the operator level — the guy who actually interfaces with human beings at our city streets level. And that’s potholes."

The project uses existing traffic cameras to provide data related to traffic volume and other metrics, such as the age of the pavement, while also considering weather and other anomalies like traffic accidents or department maintenance to anticipate when a section of street will fail. 

“Instead of having them [traffic cameras] provide just pictures back to my traffic operations center, they will be analyzed pictures,” Bennett explained.

The program, currently being tested on about six arterial, high-traffic-volume streets, relies on software upgrades rather than the installation of new equipment, which could be prohibitively expensive. And using existing equipment also means the city isn’t purchasing new equipment, finding new power sources or undergoing other hurdles.

"Public Works is managing the maintenance based on the algorithm on those streets and comparing results with six control streets," said Bennett. 

The approach is similar to the one taken in 2015 when Kansas City launched a mobile payment plan for its 1,500 parking meters. Drivers in Kansas City only needed to download the Parkmobile app, which lets drivers pay parking meters via their smart phones — and alerts them when the time is running out. Parkmobile is used by dozens of cities nationwide. 

Just as Parkmobile uses existing parking meters, the pothole predictor plan also takes advantage of existing infrastructure.

“So that again, I’m taking advantage of existing infrastructure, and ‘smartifying’ it,” said Bennett.
Kansas City maintains some 6,400 miles of streets across 318 square miles on an annual budget of only about $8 million, which Bennett said means the city currently repairs or resurfaces about 20 to 25 miles of streets a year.

Preventive maintenance will stretch that money further, allowing the city to cover 35 to 45 miles of streets a year.

This new preventive maintenance effort allows the city to find a way to predict problem areas “where we know the next problem is going to be,” said Bennett. “And by doing that as routine maintenance, we are able to use materials, and we’re able to use equipment that we have allocated toward these types of tasks. We’re just doing it more intelligently now.”

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.