Brick streets hold up better than asphalt

The debate between brick and paved asphalt is nothing new.

(Jamestown, New York)  —  In 1905 the national Brick and Clay Record reported that Syracuse was returning to brick streets due to the growing costs of maintaining its new asphalt streets. The city spent $9,628.39 on 30 miles of asphalt during the prior year, and for 15.4 miles of brick, only $120.73. The year before that, asphalt paving cost the city $4,500 while there was no maintenance costs at all for the brick streets.

The article notes that since 1889 when the first asphalt was laid, “thousands of dollars have been paid out for repairs on asphalt pavements while the amount spent on the brick has been so small in comparison as to amount to practically nothing.”

A recent article from USA Today reports this trend is resurfacing.

From Brooksville, Fla. to Davenport, Iowa, dozens of cities across the country are supporting brick streets for a variety of reasons.

“There is a romantic appeal that people find attractive because it is different,” said Dan Marriott of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Brick streets are “on a scale that people appreciate.”

In Amarillo, the city invested $200,000 to transform one street block to a brick surface. While other cities support modest plans – banning the dismantling of its historic brick avenues in favor of asphalt, for instance – the costs of returning to brick can be significant.

Cost effectiveness all depends on how frequently public works crew have to make repairs on the streets. For asphalt, routine maintenance can be a yearly event. But for proper brick streets, their life span could well outlive the careers of any city workman.

“They last. With a little repair they’ll go another 100 years,” said Eric Schallert, senior engineer in the Davenport Public Works Department.


“Our brick streets hold up better than asphalt,” said Jeff Lehman, director of public works for the city of Jamestown, and in addition to durability, material costs are comparatively cheap compared to the alternative.

According to Lehman, bricks sit atop a 6-inch concrete deck that is covered with a layer of sand. Asphalt requires a bed of gravel up to 18 inches in depth, and three layers of asphalt, including the base, binder and top paved surface.

He said Jamestown does not need to purchase new bricks. The city maintains a “sizable” salvage pile of bricks pulled from other projects and previous brick roads. Lehman said they are never in short supply because, in his 16 years with the department, Jamestown has never converted an asphalt street to brick. The “newest” recycled bricks are about 80 years old, he said, and they are basically indestructible when laid into the surface.

During the early part of the 20th century, the Jamestown Shale Paving Brick Company produced from its kilns a total of 15 million bricks annually. A contemporary historian wrote the local shale “is of a peculiar character and makes the hardest and most durable kind of brick for paving purposes.”


But when it comes to paving the city streets today, all roads lead to labor.

“Anything to do with bricks is labor-intensive,” said Lehman. “It’s all handwork.”

If the brick surface exhibits bumps or gaps, the city must remove all of the bricks and examine the hidden layers, he said. The solution might be to just level the sand, or the concrete might be cracked underneath, which turns the area of concern into a major project.

For this reason, Lehman said slowly the city’s brick streets are being phased out.

This summer he said street crews dug out the bricks from a section Church and Cole streets, which were replaced with layers of asphalt.

Bricks still in place from decades past are beveled on hillsides to allow better grip for horseshoes. In the case of the brick incline on Church, the surface ices over quicker than the alternative pavement, said Lehman, so it was replaced.

The city’s asphalt expressways cut right through lanes of red brick, and Lehman said it is due to the realities of fast traffic and heavy trucking. Tires produce greater noise at high speeds on brick, and heavy weight can stress the concrete deck below. Fifth and Sixth streets were the last brick thoroughfares to be carved out and replaced with asphalt.

In a rebuttal to the corporate advocacy of the Brick and Clay Record, the National Asphalt Pavement Association champions the use of asphalt pavement.

Although it says asphalt requires “maintenance and periodic replacement of their surface layer,” many well-driven expressways nationwide – the 60-year-old New Jersey turnpike, for example – have remained “structurally sound” after decades of heavy use.

But Lehman said the side-street traffic of Jamestown is light enough to permit the concrete underlayer to survive 50 years, so those brick roads aren’t changing anytime soon.

Dozens of asphalt restoration projects were done this summer, including 20 streets for routine surface overlay. While a third of the city streets remains brick, only three restoration projects for this type were scheduled. Any repairs to the vast majority of brick streets will be unnecessary until next summer, or many years beyond.

By Jason Rodriguez


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