Potholes and Politics: How Citizens are Using Paint to Solve Urban Problems


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By Vilhelm Konnander at Global Voices

Being a road engineer in Russia must be a nightmare. The combination of harsh climate, mud and marshlands, with annual frost and thaw, makes the upkeep of many roads next to an impossible task. In spring, some roads simply float off. Recently, Russian roads were ranked #125 out of 139 in the world by the World Economic Forum’s 2011-2012 Global Competitiveness Report.

One might assume that most Russians would have resigned to the task, but, whereas in a country like Canada with similar conditions, few eyebrows are raised, in Russia roads have become a stain on national pride, in man’s constant struggle to tame the forces of nature. Thus, last year, the then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced a massive road construction programme, to double the rate of building.

As with most overambitious plans, Russians exercise some sound skepticism to its realization, and instead are beginning to take matters into their own hands, as in the case of Yekaterinburg – Russia’s fourth largest city.

“Make the bureaucrat work!” is the slogan of a local campaign [ru] run by the regional Internet news agency, Ura.ru. Their solution to the road problem is as simple as it is elegant: They simply spray-paint the portraits of local dignitaries around potholes, with quotes of their promises to fix the problem, and guess what – problem solved!

What has taken local politicians years not to do, is now done overnight. The embarrassment of having their portraits so concretely fixed to the potholes of their power, has seemingly made authorities run about like mad to pave over their portraits of impotence, filling the holes in streets and roads.

So, what kind of reactions have we  seen in Russian social media?

Twitter user @ekalmurzaeva shouts out [ru]:

That’s how to make bureaucrats work! Portraits of bureaucrats helped repair the road.

LJ user salvatoreha underlines the efficiency of the campaign, but also points out [ru] that it was not a one-hit overnight victory:

Remember how artists painted city officials on the roads, with pits and holes filling their mouths. The action proved not only effectful, but also efficient. At first, municipal services either painted over the pictures or removed a layer of asphalt. At night, campaign initiators left additional graffiti “To paint over isn’t the same as fixing!” By morning, municipality workers had fully patched all holes.

Yekaterinburg LJ user Ivan Dmitriyev adds [ru] some local colour and humour to the affaire:

Dozens of news agencies highlighted this action. But the city administration reacted with humour to what had happened, and said that Governor Yevgeny Kuyvashev was to take an evening stroll through the city, and that he was curious to take a look at one of the caricatures. But some senior municipal official still decided not to traumatize the psyche of his boss. Already by next morning all the holes were patched up, asphalt laid, and the faces, with screaming mouth holes, were consequently painted over.

The result was achieved – done deal, no holes. What a blessing to one’s hometown. Apparently, when bureaucrats close their eyes to city problems, it is necessary to open them, because to their own “ranks”, as the Yekaterinburg example shows, they remain in awe.

What is not said is often more interesting than what is actually said. Critical voices to the “Make the bureaucrat work!” campaign are hard to find in social media. As noted by one blogger, even the attacked politicians appear to look positively on the action, making their bureaucracy get down to work.

As a matter of fact, the method seems so efficient that one wonders how long it will take before the campaign is taken to a countrywide scale, possibly by the lively Russian motorists’ movement. As Russia’s legislators and police clamp down on political rights, perhaps this campaign indicates the growth of alternative popular action, a spontaneously evolving civil society, aimed at solving actual problems in people’s everyday lives.

  • deh3

    Poor condition of roads has at least one benefit: it makes rail, active transportation and possibly public transit more competitive than the automobile, which should be discouraged wherever possible due to the external costs (air, water, soil and noise pollution, sedentary lifestyle, collisions, congestion, opportunity cost of doing something more productive than driving, and stress.

    • http://www.thisbigcity.net/ Joe Peach

      Allowing roads to degrade is the worst possible way of ‘encouraging’ people to use other forms of transport. You are essentially providing them with no other option – is that how we want to get people out of their cars? Wouldn’t it be infinitely better to create alternatives that people actually want to use?!

      And what about buses and bikes? They use the roads too and are very sustainable alternatives. 

      • deh3

        People will get out of the car when there is a sufficient combination of incentives to use the alternatives and disincentives of using the car. With more people being unwilling to accept the damage to their vehicle and the discomfort of travel, more people would travel via the more efficient modes of transportation, and increased pressure to increase funding of the alternatives, resulting in increased economies of scale, reducing the cost to the consumer and government.

        The amount of road surface necessary to transport a given number of people via bus and bike is less than via car. I would not consider buses to be “very sustainable” as they still contribute to the aforementioned external costs, although not to the same extent as the car. Mountain bikes can travel on rough surfaces, although it is offset by slower travelling speed.

        Municipal governments have the ability to make public transit free, but
        are unwilling to shift funding from areas which have a low or negative
        rate of return on the investment (roads, parking, planning,
        police–knowing that they frequently target victimless activities such
        as drug use, prostitution, vagrancy, jay-walking) to areas which have a
        high rate of return on the investment. In the long-term, governments
        should make it more profitable for builders to build upward rather than
        outward through changes to zoning, development charges and property