Pothole Vigilantes

Not so fun fact: Oakland roads are some of the worst in the country. I swear every street in the entire city could use a good repaving. It’s estimated that the poor road quality ends up costing citizens an extra $1,049 per year in car maintenance. Yikes! (Don’t get me wrong — I really love living in Oakland — but that doesn’t mean I’m not aware of city’s issues.)

Well, a couple of citizens have lost patience and have decided to take things into their own hands. They started an Instagram feed called Pothole Vigilantes, and if you happen to have a pothole you want fixed, you let them know the location, and they’ll go fill the hole in the middle of the night. You can Venmo them cash as a thank you.

The city has discouraged this (obviously).

The Pothole Vigilantes are even hosting a meetup this week, where they’ll connect with like minded Oaklanders, and give out supplies so people can fix the potholes in their own neighborhoods.

My son Ralph told me about the Pothole Vigilantes and I keep thinking about them. I like that they enable anyone to do something nice for their fellow citizens — meaning, if I know of a pothole on a busy road, and send a money to the Pothole Vigilantes as a thank you for fixing it, yes I would benefit, but so would every other driver on that road (most I whom I will never meet).

I also like the simple problem-solving behind it — the see-a-need, fill-a-need instinct. And I like that it might push the city to work faster to get to the much needed road improvements.

It also stresses me out a bit — maybe it’s the mom in me. I worry about the safety of the Vigilantes. And I worry that they’ll end up getting sued or something, even though they are working hard to improve our city. But mostly my instinct is to admire this kind of impulse.

What are your thoughts? Do you have anything like this where you live? DIY citizens that yarn bomb, or anonymously plant public gardens, or fix potholes, or pick up litter on daily hikes? I’d love to hear!

34 thoughts on “Pothole Vigilantes”

  1. I believe here in Australia, some locals got so frustrated with the state of some major roads that they ended up ‘paint-bombing’ the potholes with prominent, neon drawings of genitals so that the local council would come in and immediately repave to cover them up. Reading that made me laugh – a very Australian reaction to the issue.

    I think the vigilante efforts are a result of being dismissed so often, that people just finally need to do something (I know the Australian roads were promised repairs for years), and I think that fixing – or forcing the council’s hand – is a much less destructive and almost positive way to channel that frustration.

  2. I live in south Florida and don’t really have potholes here. BUT I actually heard about the pothole vigilantes in Oakland on NPR yesterday!!! They are making news :)

  3. My son and I have been admiring Jim Bachor’s pothole art for awhile now. He fills potholes in Chicago and then presses tile mosaics into them. If you google his name and potholes you can see his work. Even if the subject of the art is mundane, I find it incredibly inspiring. Good luck with the road situation in Oakland!

  4. My cycling friends have all been talking about this. I like the idea. I like the attention that it’s drawing more. Having grown up in Oakland, I know there are a multitude of other issues that are more pressing, but maybe this will help get some attention to the roads that residents are paying taxes to have properly maintained.

  5. I know there are similar vigilantes in Rome, with all sorts of city issues being resolved by volunteers. Unfortunately I can’t remember where I read the story or found the link.

  6. Back in the early 80’s my b-i-l was driving to work on the road he took everyday and was broadsided severely in an uncontrolled intersection. The town where we lived was very secluded, very small, yet it was incorporated. Many many intersections were just left without signage and it was the habit of some to approach all intersection as a scared deer while others just honked their horn as they drove faster through!

    We, and others got together and presented a plan to add stop signs wherein *WE* would pay for them, however we were dismissed sternly, and somewhat apologetically explaining that until an intersection “proved to be a hazard” it would not receive approval for signage.

    “Proved to be a hazard” was code for “4 or more fatalities at that exact location” -they literally needed people to pay with their lives before it would get any attention. There was a joke with the local first responders that included this same philosophy in regard to guard rails, which they darkly nicknamed “memorials”.

    The mom in me says “pretend you are official, wear reflective clothing that looks like road worker uniforms, use reflective cones, essentially make sure everyone can see your good work! BE SAFE!” but there is another part of me that is screaming JUST DO IT!”

  7. I am curious about the liability implications of “vigilantes”. Though the intentions are good, what happens if someone gets hurt over one of these “pothole vigilantes” patches? Would the lawyers still sue the city or would the city not be responsible for it? Sorry, we live in CA where lawyers will sue over anything.

      1. I roll my eyes too. But I’m not a lawyer. People sue for tripping on city sidewalks. The city would probably argue that they didn’t approve the patch and would not be liable for any suits.

        1. We are a litigious society and this is a reasonable concern. I’d be worried that the vigilantes themselves would be identified and sued if something happened. What if the patch proves to be substandard and, I don’t know, damages the road further? Could the city actually sue them? These are not unreasonable questions. I’m not saying never leave your house, but I hate when “Good Samaritans” get in trouble for helping, and it certainly happens. No reason to “roll eyes” at someone pointing it out.

  8. I was going to look on Craigslist just now, for free bricks to stash in my trunk, then place into potholes on my daily driving routes. Then the holes wouldn’t be quite so deep right? I can’t imagine holes roads in Oakland are worse than roads in Minnesota!?! Winter is a beast here. Thanks for the inspiration Gabby!

  9. I love this! Good for them — now maybe Oakland officials will start allocating funds for roads to help those living there!

  10. Kate the Great

    I have a friend who is also a vigilante— for bumblebees. She knows that bees are missing flowers from which to gather nectar. People plant fewer flowers on properties, and bees have to fly further to find them. So she gathers starts from her own front-yard-garden, her own potting soil and tools and goes into the city and plants.

    She plants on abandoned spaces like open lots. She tries to get permission from business owners of places like golf courses and apartment parks, but while they are waiting for a scheduled meeting to sit around a conference table and talk about it, she plants.

    I love her; she’s one of my heroes.

  11. A friend and I started a sort of vigilante group in our community – we’ve invited other “makers” like us (young and old) to send secret valentines the week leading up to Valentine’s Day. They could be made of any medium – whatever anyone wants to create. We have a little stock message that goes along with each anonymously sent valentine, so that recipients don’t think someone creepy is stalking them…some have been left in public places, like the library, some have been delivered to nursing homes, some to random addresses, or to folks with whom they’ve lost touch . It’s just a simple, stealthy way to spread love and beauty in the world. You can see some examples of what participants have made on Instagram at #hudsonsecretvalentine

    1. Kate the Great


      This reminds me of Free Art Fridays, which we do here in Salem, Oregon. You make a piece of art: a card, an ATC, a bookmark, a small canvas, a button, you get the idea… Then you attach a stock message thing to it and leave it in a public place for some other stranger to find. We’ve done this before– it’s thrilling!

  12. I am a civil engineer and work exclusively on roadway and bridge projects. Great topic. I want to expand from potholes.

    Maintenance for our existing roadways and bridges is significantly underfunded and should be a national conversation. I wanted to comment on the person who stated that maybe these vigilantes will get local officials to fund more maintance. This is not an issue of negligence or mismanagement of funds on the part of local government employees. I have seen that they do an amazing amount of work on very limited budgets. This is a political issue that state and federal legislatures have been unable or unwilling to create long term funding to adequately maintain existing (let alone new) roadways.

    Much of this countries roadway budget comes from the gas tax, as cars become more fuel efficient less gas is consumed reducing the tax base for transportation. Where will the long term funding come from when we shift to more electric cars? Who will pay a greater share of the roadway maintenance, will it be people who are unable to afford newer more fuel efficient cars?

    When will politicians have enough political pressure to solve long term funding issues that will far outstrip their tenure?

    1. I had the same thought!
      Why is it that the federal government can afford 4.6 billion in oil subsidies (as of 2015, probably higher now) but local government can’t fill potholes?

      Also, I think there is a chance that East St Louis, IL has worse roads than Oakland. :-) I worked there during college. So many wonderful people in difficult conditions! https://www.cacesl.org/

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  14. This all reminds me of the story in LA where a man made a new freeway sign due to people getting lost all the time. The highway folks didn’t even realize that it wasn’t one of their signs but when they did find out about it out they decided to leave it because it was so closely matched to the real ones.

    1. I was thinking of that too! I believe he used to make the signage professionally, so he had all the tools and materials and knew how to install it correctly. I love that he saw the need and just took care of the problem.

  15. Danielle Lindberg

    I heard about the pothole vigilantes on a report on NPR this week. I thought it was such an interesting story about how people are stepping up to address simple fix issues in their communties. The city of Oakland should employ them to just fix the potholes as they are doing now, until the city can come up with a better road maintence plan.

  16. I love this! When we lived in Oakland we found the key to getting potholes fixed quickly was to report it on See Click Fix and make a big deal about how the pothole could be a hazard to cyclists (which is so true!). When we included the cyclist bit in the description they always seemed to get fixed. You can also have others vote on your See Click Fix projects, which supposedly encourages the city to fix them faster.

  17. Not quite as sneaky, but years ago a gang graffiti-covered bridge got painted by a neighborhood group. A woman who lived right by the bridge contacted the state highway department to see if it could be painted, and was told (this was right after the I35 bridge collapse in Minneapolis) that all the money needed to go towards keeping the bridges standing, and a paint crew was not in the budget.
    She talked to her neighborhood group, and they wrote again offering to paint the bridge. The state accepted with thanks, and supplied the paint.
    And it’s never been graffiti’d again.

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