Between poor management and lack of resources, the state of French roads is deteriorating

Between poor management and lack of resources, the state of French roads is deteriorating

Motorists are ready for the big departures. But the French road network, long ranked among the safest in the world, is deteriorating, between poor management and lack of resources.

Georges has two options to reach the centre of Villefranche-de-Rouergue, in Aveyron. First, Avenue Caylet, a long straight road of just under a kilometre passing in front of the town hospital. The second, Avenue de la Libération, which serves the municipal swimming pool and the stadium. The journey time hardly varies, approximately ten minutes each. But for Georges, the choice is a difficult one. Littered with potholes and cracks, both roads are in poor condition. Inside the car, it shakes.

When Georges can, he prefers to drive in the middle of the road, hoping to save his health and the shock absorbers of his car. “I’ll send the bill to the town hall!” the septuagenarian fumes.

With the exception of the motorway network granted to private operators, the state of French roads has been steadily deteriorating for the past ten years. However, the road network remains, by far, the main vector of travel in France. The subject is back in the spotlight, particularly on the occasion of the complete reopening of the A13 motorway, closed since 22 April 2024 due to cracking of the road surface. While in 2012, France still occupied first place in the World Economic Forum’s ranking for “the quality of road infrastructure”, it dropped to eighteenth position in 2019. Nearly 19% of the national network, 12% of departmental roads and 10% of those managed by municipalities are “in poor condition”*. An alarming situation at a time when people are heading off on holiday, especially since, according to the latest road safety report, almost a third of fatal accidents are linked to infrastructure.

A tangle of responsibilities

The state of the roads illustrates the complexity of the bureaucratic millefeuille. Until 1970, state services ensured their maintenance. In the 1980s, decentralization transferred their management to the municipalities and departments. Since then, inter-municipalities or metropolises such as Toulouse or Lyon have been added to this pyramid. “We are only adding layers of complexity,” laments Jean-Max Gillet, president of the Maintenance des routes de France (MRF) union. In Villefranche-de-Rouergue, 70 km are managed by the inter-municipal authority, 50 km by the municipality and 30 km by the department. On the road leading to the city center, you can see the change. “Do you feel the smooth asphalt? Here, we are driving on a municipal road,” comments Georges, who has become an expert. At the town hall, it is admitted that some roads are in better condition than others. “Unfortunately, the most damaged are departmental roads,” explains Jean-Claude Carrié, deputy in charge of infrastructure and the city’s road network. “Some departments are less wealthy than others and the roads can suffer as a result, becoming a budget adjustment variable.” The number of stakeholders increases the confusion. The municipality wants to redo the road leading to the hospital by 2025. A big budget for the city, especially since the water and sanitation networks also need to be repaired. And if you’re going to improve the roads, you might as well include a cycle path. A skill devolved here… to the Region. Pierre Dumas, project manager at the National Road Observatory, understands this: “Too many people are working on the same skills, which makes it difficult to complete projects.”

Faster degradations

A puzzle to which cyclical causes are added. Public investments have continued to decline since 2013. According to the latest ONR report, in 2022, nine billion euros will have been invested. This is 20% less than in 2013, “even though the works, indexed to the price of oil, cost more and climate change degrades infrastructure more quickly”, notes David Zambon, deputy director general of the Center for Studies and Expertise on Risks, the Environment, Mobility and Development (Cerema). In addition, the number of road professionals continues to decline, leading to a lack of training for them. If in 2006, 30,000 agents from all the Departmental Equipment Directorates (DDE) were still trained by the State, today, there are only 9,000 left. A significant figure, while the car remains the preferred mode of transport for the French. At the start of summer 2024, 76% of them will take their vehicle to go on vacation.

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