Why are Germany’s roads better? Or are they?

The question comes up often: Why are the roads in other countries – say, Germany – so much better than those in Michigan?

The Michigan Department of Transportation decided to find out. After studying highway designs in Germany and Austria, MDOT and the Federal Highway Administration in 1993 built a one-mile section of northbound I-75 in Detroit using the more-costly European specifications. For comparison, it built a stretch south of that in the usual Michigan style.

The European section was built with two layers of concrete, thicker than the one layer typical of Michigan highways. The concrete rested on a deep base of a crushed limestone, rather than the sand usually used in Michigan roads. Joints were closer than in the typical Michigan design, allowing for more expansion.

Within two years, both sections had superficial cracks. Twenty years later, “there is no clear indication as to which pavement section will eventually achieve the most cost-effective service life,” an MDOT study said. It noted, however, that the European section was showing signs of wear, with some of the concrete surface “delaminating,” or separating, possibly due to water freezing and expanding, the same destructive cycle that plagues Michigan’s roads.

Since the European section cost more than twice as much, MDOT officials doubt it’s worth building Michigan’s roads in that style. “We can’t afford to build them that way,” MDOT Director Kirk Steudle said.

And it is unlikely Michigan’s taxpayers would be willing to bear the additional cost. Drivers in Germany pay more than $8 for a gallon of gasoline, much of it due to fuel taxes for road maintenance that are about 18 times higher than in the U.S.

The European experiment has not been for naught. Michigan’s highway engineers are incorporating some of the most cost-effective features of that design as they rebuild sections of state highways, Steudle said.

Within the past decade, MDOT began rebuilding roads on a base of crushed stones and sand over pipes that allow water to drain away, said Nishantha Bandara, a civil engineering professor at Lawrence Technological University. In the Detroit area, parts of the Lodge Freeway and Southfield Freeway, as well as a section of I-96 in Macomb County, have been built to the new standard. The roadway connecting I-75 to the new international bridge in Detroit also is being built in that style, said Bandara, formerly a civil engineer with MDOT.

It’s too soon to say whether those changes will substantially improve the lifespan of Michigan’s highways, but Bandara is optimistic.

Winters, lakes hard on roads

Michigan’s climate and its different soils make road building more of a challenge than in most other states, Bandara said.

The Great Lakes, among Michigan’s finest assets, also are tough on the roads. In a typical winter (and this last one was anything but typical), the lakes are a moderating influence, causing several freeze and thaw cycles, more than in any of the other Great Lakes states, climatologists and highway engineers say.

In West Michigan, the soil is predominantly sand and gravel, which is a better base for roads. In the Upper Peninsula, it is rock and swampland. Mid-Michigan is a mix of sand and clay.

Southeast Michigan, the most densely populated region of the state, is heavy clay, which is the worst base for roads, because it doesn’t allow water to drain away. That’s why a section of I-75 in Monroe County is one of the worst in the state.

“In Metro Detroit, we have this very weak clay,” Bandara said, like toothpaste that never completely dries. “If you build on this very weak clay, the pavement is not supported properly.”

Water seeps through cracks in the pavement. When it freezes, the ice expands, causing the pavement to rise. When the ice thaws, it leaves a void that collapses when a heavy vehicle passes over it. Thus is born a pothole.

Bandara is working on a research project for MDOT, using recycled materials, such as fly ash, a byproduct of burned coal, to stabilize the clay.

From the European experiment, “we’ve learned, we’ve reviewed and we’ve adjusted,” Steudle said. “We’re always finding tweaks to build the roads better.”

But rebuilding Michigan’s roads to the new standards would take many decades, since it is cheaper for MDOT to maintain its roads than replace them.

But “hopefully, you’ll see fewer potholes,” Bandara said.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Thu, 04/10/2014 - 9:37am
We just don't care enough to build solid roads - that's all this article is saying. In other words, we want to be a 3rd world country and have their roads. The view of the Detroiit News; it will cost too much... so let's have miserable roads. More tax cuts for the rich and corporations should help. What a joke of a story; start with your premise and then find reasons, not facts, to support it. How about the roads in Finland, Sweden, etc. ?
Thu, 04/10/2014 - 10:40am
Guess you and I read different stories. Everything that was said in the story made sense to me.
Thu, 04/10/2014 - 10:51pm
Rich, I think we did read different articles. Banadara's last quote, “hopefully, you’ll see fewer potholes,” does not speak of confidence in improving things. I would have like to hear that they had a disciplined approach to evaualting conditons, were working with manufacturers and univerisities evaluating new/different methods for constructing and maintaining the roads. Instead we get 'hopefully'. A previous employer of mine would expect demonstrate results deteermining what works or doesn't work and why, no 'hopefully'. My peers would not even wasted another glance in my direct if we were trying to work on such a consequencial and costly problem. All we seem to get from MDOT is asking for money to do the same things again and again. If MDOT can't be more specific on what they have achieved and why or what the are trying to achieve and how then why should we consider them working smarter or dilligently to result the issue? Why do we hear about formal plans to address the roads issues?
Thu, 04/10/2014 - 11:24am
$8/gallon is only slightly above the true cost of maintaining and building roads. And we want to reach German standards at half that amount.
Melanie Hoff
Thu, 04/10/2014 - 9:51am
I was intrigued by your article. Years ago I learned that the company who constructs the roads in Germany is also responsible for maintenance for 20 years. I don't know if this policy is still in existence today but it is an incentive to build better quality roads which will last.
Gene Markel
Thu, 04/10/2014 - 10:43am
The method of sealing expansion joints in our concrete roads promote potholes. I call them pothole worms; the mechanical seal that is inserted into the expansion joint. Heat, water and freezing forces the seal out of the joint. Water then freezes in the open joint cracking the concrete and forming a pothole. This occurs at the curb side of the road where water accumulates because of the crown in the roadway. Next time you are driving on a concrete road you might see a black strip lying next to an expansion joint or sticking up from the joint next to the curb. Sealing the expansion joint with a closed cell polymer can prevent water from infiltrating the expansion joint thus preventing potholes. I know it sounds too simple but there are concrete roads in Michigan that are sealed and don't have potholes.
Thu, 04/10/2014 - 10:48am
What was not mentioned was the fact that these 2 test sections were on I-375, not I-75, and that there is not the same amount of truck traffic on I-375. Also unmentioned was the allowed weight difference between MI and Germany. These multi axle trucks at 138,000 pounds do tear up the roads. Even the types of truck suspensions allowed do make a difference in road wear. If you want good roads, you need to reduce truck max weights to the federal 80,000 pound limit, and prohibit the walking beam type suspension so often used on dump trucks and cement mixers.
Mike R
Thu, 04/10/2014 - 11:08am
I greatly appreciate this article and the informed comments, even if there may be more to the story. I've wondered about the "Michigan vs. Germany" road debate for many years, and now I have a better understanding of the differences. That's not to say the decision to "cheap out" isn't a bad one, but at least we know a (small) level of innovation is making its way here. Now if we could only get the Legislature to spend the money....
Thu, 04/10/2014 - 11:22am
Isn't Germany a socialist country? Just sayin'
Mike R
Thu, 04/10/2014 - 11:46am
Just sayin' what? Is that a way of making a comment while not actually contributing anything?
Thu, 04/10/2014 - 4:54pm
What does that have to do with roads?
Jon S.
Thu, 04/10/2014 - 9:45pm
Germany is a federal parliamentary republic - it is not a socialist country. And even if it was, what does that matter? In fact, if they had better roads, maybe we are barking up the wrong governmental model. Our problem is that the trucking industry and its supporters have done all they can to destroy the best way to move freight - railways - meaning hugely heavy trucks are trundling down our roads, destroying them by the day.
Thu, 04/10/2014 - 2:50pm
So here we are chatting on this beacon of enlightenment with the "truth squad". I find that humorous and sad at the same time. The articles on road funding and condition just prove the fact that if you tell a lie loud enough and often enough it somehow becomes fact. We say, "Michigan spends less than every other state per capita" which turns into we spend less than every other state and that is why our roads are so much worse that other surrounding states. We truthfully are number 12 (of 50) in spending total dollars. We are truthfully number 24 in spending per lane mile. Figures don't lie but liars can figure you know. Current Funding is in the range of 1.8 Billion per year. Increasing that amount by 1.2 to 1.6 billion per year would completely gridlock the transportation system for the foreseeable future. A slow steady increase over the next 5 to 10 years is a more justifiable plan. We currently have revenue about $300 million lower than we had just 6 years ago. That would be a good target in the immediate future, along with a sustained increase to a REASONABLE total investment. If you want to implement a hidden tax increase on yourselves just continue repeating what you've heard about warranties and gross vehicle weights. Both will increase the overall costs to each of you on every construction project. You will get the same kind of result as when your car fails the day after the warranty expires and they keep your initial payment. Don't rely on what you read or hear when the information is garnered from those with a dog in the fight! Where is the Truth Squad on this issue?
Fri, 04/11/2014 - 10:12am
Why compare to Germany? Why not compare to our neighbor to the east, Ontario. Their roads are in great shape. Their climate is similar to ours and they border two Great Lakes, what a perfect comparison. Let's find out what they are doing and consider trying it out here. The inaction of our legislature is unacceptable. If they can't take action, they need to be replaced with people who are willing to stand up to the anti-tax fanatics, for the good of the state.
Sun, 04/20/2014 - 11:20pm
Hear, hear !!!
Fri, 04/11/2014 - 4:42pm
Two key factors they don't address is the difference in the quality of materials used and the warrant (frequently up to 20 years) that must be included with road construction in Germany/Europe. The standard practice in the U.S. is to use the cheapest materials, whereas European regulations demand a quality level that is warranted by the company doing the construction. Frequently in the U.S., the company that built the road two years ago is "out of business" and no longer able to be held responsible for bad work.
Fri, 04/11/2014 - 5:13pm
dlb is going in the right direction..compare climates and approximate geology/soils, etc...Ontario, Wisconsin and Minnesota strike me as good comps..haven't been in Ontario for a while, but recently drove to Minneapolis through northern Michigan and Wisconsin...my thoughts were that our best roads would only be above average there...construction quality is important, as are things like weight limits, # of axles weight is spread over...I once had an MDOT engineer tell me that one place we ranked badly was "crack sealing" before tiny cracks let water in to freeze and become bigger cracks.
Sat, 04/12/2014 - 2:56pm
We have heard here in the article and comments ifdentifcation of several elements that people see as factors in how roads survive. I wonder why MDOT doesn't talk aobut these issue with the public. Do they think we can understand, that we don't care, that we will feel they are irrelavent? I have no experience with roads (other then riding on them) and yet it seems these points are all important factors that need to be addressed. I wonder why we only hear about spending more money, but never on what or what we should expect for that money. I will be up front I am losing confidence in those who spend our money on roads when they aren't will to talk about such factors and their action/decisions compare to others with similar problems. If they won't talk to the public I can only assume they don;t trust the public and if the don't trust us then why should we trust them. I am also loosing my confidence in the legislators because it doesn't seem they are willing to hold MDOT and other agencies accountable for how they spend out money. I know local State Reps never talk about how they hold the State agencies accountable.
Javan Kienzle
Sun, 04/13/2014 - 10:45am
So an MDOT study says it doesn't make any difference whether we build Michigan's roads the way we do or build them the way Germany does? This is roughly equivalent to having a Petroleum Industry study conclude that there's nothing wrong with fracking, or having Matty Moroun tell us that his bridge is safe. I would like to see an independent study compare Michigan's road-building with Germany's road-building. Also, if the U.S. had more rail to carry more freight, and more short-sea transportation, we wouldn't have to have our highways destroyed by hyper-heavy truck cartage. The days when everything in the U.S. was better than anything in any other country are long gone. The best thing about the U.S. is our ideals; the worst thing about the U.S. is that we rarely live up to those ideals.
Mon, 04/21/2014 - 1:48am
Good points! I lived/worked in Germany (BTW, it's a social democracy) for almost 30 years, &, looking back, I'm greatly impressed with the Germans! It seems to me that they do almost every important thing better than we do: e.g., infrastructure (the topic here) is not something they debate; it's a issue that must be handled (in a sensible way), so they handle it, using tax funds, of course. And they don't go the "el cheapo" route, as is our wont, (i.e., according to the info above). Germans want quality, not junk! Furthermore, they have a health system that works; similar, but better than Canada's. Nobody dies for lack of health insurance, as here. The ERs are not the first line of defense, as is so often the case here, because the civilized/sensible Germans practice affordable PREVENTIVE medicine, nipping health problems in the bud. And there are no co-pays for every physician visit, so no reason to try to save money by not going. It's just a far better system! They have a public transportation system that works (including high speed trains); free university education for those who qualify; education is, of course, very important. Educators, not parents, make educational decisions, Teachers are respected, not looked down at. And for the University-non-qualifiers, there are good trade schools, plus they have a fantastic apprentice program (Siemens, et al.). . Prostitution is controlled and legal (i.e.,in bordelles - imagine how many problems that solves!). They don't fill their prisons to the brim with young people who have commited minor crimes, & they don't lock prisoners up & throw away the key, or torture them with solitary confinement, unless there is no other option, but more humane. After 15 years they analyze the long term convicts & may find that he's/she's changed for the better, so that earlier release is possible. Germans emphasize rehabilitation & "normalization", not punishment, as in the U.S. In general the Germans have far less stress & worries. And that's all that presently comes to mind.
Mon, 04/13/2015 - 12:04am
This article overlooks one key advantage of the German road building method. They pour their roads in two steps. They lay down a 10-13" thick base layer of concrete over which they add another thin 3" veneer layer on top of the first layer once its fully set. The top thin layer can be easily scraped off later by machinery when it starts to fail and replaced with another fresh 3" skin layer. No need to replace the entire road bed like MDOT likes to do in Michigan. There is equipment that can scrape up that top layer, grind it up, mix it with water and fresh Portland cement and pour it back out in one continuous process. This is where the cost savings comes in for the tax payers. The problem is these methods require long term planning versus the short term planning that seems to be popular now in our country.
Wed, 07/15/2015 - 8:11pm
I just spent a month in Europe driving 2,500 miles. The German roads are fantastic (Italy and France are pretty good too). The trucks over there don't seem to be smaller or weight less than our trucks. But, they also don't seem to travel in the left hand lanes very often. They stay to the right and travel slower than car traffic. I don't know if repaying the right hand lanes only (if they wear out sooner) would help but keeping the trucks to the right and limiting their ability to pass make driving there a pleasure. And much safer.