Sweeping Industry Operations
Philadelphia Ramping Street Sweeping Back Up
Mayor Jim Kenney announced a new anti-litter proposal in his budget address that could bring the city a step closer to shedding the unwanted sobriquet "Filthadelphia."
In January of 2019, an article by investigators for PlanPhilly reported that the Philadelphia Parking Authority (PPA) makes millions of dollars ticketing drivers for blocking street sweepers that rarely show.
The reporters, Ryan Briggs and Aaron Moselle, then set out to discover why the PPA was ticketing cars for blocking street sweepers on streets the city doesn't actually sweep 75 percent of the time.
Outside of Dr. Louis Brown's dermatology clinic in Northeast Philadelphia, a string of "no parking" signs warn drivers to stay off the block on Tuesday mornings. The parking lanes on his stretch of Rising Sun Avenue are supposed to be kept clear so city street sweepers can clean trash out of the curb line between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. Brown, a block captain who's had his business on the street for 25 years, says the $31 tickets his unlucky clients receive from the Philadelphia Parking Authority each Tuesday are very real. But the street sweepers themselves? Not so much.
"It's not to say it isn't done," he said. "But I haven't seen them come by in years."
PlanPhilly and WHYY reporters deployed to these business corridors didn't have much more luck spotting the city's cleaning crews. Over the course of one week in December 2018, the reporters did not observe any street sweepers on any of the posted routes before, during, and after the posted "no parking" hours.
Even if sweepers don't show up consistently, The Philadelphia Parking Authority's agents do.
Between 2007 and 2017, the state parking enforcement agency issued over 148,000 tickets to drivers for failing to move their cars on days designated for street sweeping, according to PPA records. Together, these tickets amount to $8.1 million in fees and penalties, of which the agency has collected $5.5 million. Only about a quarter of all PPA revenue goes back to the city and school district.
Thousands more tickets were issued in Center City to drivers who didn't move their cars on neighborhood cleanup days. Even more sweeping tickets were issued on streets that were not on the city's cleaning schedule. A PPA spokesman declined to explain why agents were ticketing these areas.
Philadelphia is the only big city in the U.S. without a comprehensive street cleaning program. But these driver penalties trace back to an eight-route weekday morning sweep that has survived decades of municipal budget cuts without much notice. On these eight routes, signs enforce alternate-side-of-the-street parking restrictions.
According to officials interviewed for this story, each thoroughfare gets a weekly sweeping with the occasional missed day of service due to crew shortages or maintenance. That's why PPA must be out there – to make sure streets are clear for the sweepers.
"These blocks were part of a larger posted daytime [street sweeping] system that mostly went away when we lost funding. But they continue to be swept because they're commercial corridors with high traffic volume," said Keith Warren, deputy streets commissioner for sanitation. "I don't have a statistic, but they're scheduled to be swept once a week and we try to shoot for that."
Warren implied neighbors like Brown may just have not noticed the early-morning sweeping. "I don't know why they would say they never see them, but I do know that we send the trucks out," said Warren. But WHYY and PlanPhilly sent reporters to observe the sweepers for a second week of cleaning in January and found that the inconsistency continued.
Over the two weeks, the Streets Department failed to show up for the scheduled cleaning assignment 75 percent of the time, hitting only one quarter of the assigned routes. Meanwhile, PPA agents ticketed cars parked in the street sweeping zones on most of the scheduled cleaning days. Some streets were not swept either of the two weeks that reporters monitored the city's daytime cleaning routes.
Until the 1970s, Philadelphia was regarded as one of the cleanest cities in America, employing a robust sweeping program that employed thousands of workers. But federal cuts at a time when the city's tax base was shrinking would set this program on a protracted decline, with the last remaining neighborhood routes being terminated in the 2000s.
Today, just $850,000 of the Sanitation Department's $90 million annual budget is dedicated to street sweeping operations, less than one percent of its overall spending. That $850,000 covers vehicle maintenance and crew costs for the city's 17 street sweeper trucks, which are scheduled to sweep the eight morning routes on Rising Sun, South Broad, and elsewhere – as well as an additional 33 commercial corridors at night that don't require parking restrictions.
But Warren said he "can't speak to why" the city chose the eight daytime routes it maintains. "I wasn't there when that coordination was made," he said. "These routes are 20 years old."
The two agencies do not have a system in place for communicating service disruptions and Warren says his department has never actually asked PPA to ticket any streets. "The ticketing part, you have to discuss with PPA. I'm only responsible for sweeping," the deputy streets commissioner said. "I don't have a preference if people move their cars or not... I live in the city and have to park here, too."
Marty O'Rourke, a PPA spokesman, pointed the finger back at the Streets Department. "At the direction of the city, the PPA does issue tickets for street cleaning violations on select streets," he said.
Interviews with city officials revealed that the inconsistent sweeping is largely the result of a series of confusing and sometimes contradictory sanitation policies handed down from one deputy to another as sanitation operations were slowly eroded by budget cuts. Crew shortages, old technology, a general failure to communicate with the PPA, and political meddling explain much of the rest.
Although Warren said the city hasn't systematically updated its policy regulating daytime sweeping schedules or parking in the 20 years since the original list of eight sweeping routes was made, some areas scheduled for the weekly brooms have been exempted from PPA's directive. The reporters found that residents of the area's stately Victorian homes on one route are free to park as they like. The rest of the route, encompassing a working-class section of Southwest Philadelphia, is ticketed.
The city couldn't explain [those exemptions] but officials admitted that other routes were modified due to political interference. "Some years back, a legislative request came asking that the east side of Broad be removed from the requirement to move cars," Warren said. "It was a request from Council."
Former City Councilman Frank DiCicco had notoriously campaigned against street sweeping in his district during the 2000s, fearing neighborhood ire over PPA ticketing would cost him reelection. Today, the east side of Broad Street, in DiCicco's old district, is free of ticketing. Predictably, drivers now fill the parking lane on that side of the street, while drivers just across Broad are ticketed by the PPA each week.
Notably, the street was never actually removed from the city's sweeping list. That means Warren's department still, at least in theory, dispatches a mechanical broom truck to cruise down Broad Street's car-blocked eastern traffic lane, unable to sweep.
Plans for improvement
For many neighbors, like Sparks, the frustration is not about occasionally receiving a parking ticket. It stems from feeling like government officials are better at doling out fines than providing a desirable service. "If they're gonna ticket me and then they're not going to clean the street, then how about just not ticketing me?" Sparks said.
Presented with findings from this WHYY/PlanPhilly report, Streets Commissioner Carlton Williams blamed the department's 75 percent failure-to-sweep rate on "mechanical issues... That is an issue, that is a concern. We want to make sure that we're providing the service that we tell the public that they should expect, especially if they're cooperating by moving their cars," said Williams. "That's our responsibility and it certainly should be addressed."
He said his department would attempt to communicate with the parking authority, particularly when the city knows a route won't be swept on a given day "so that in these cases, there's not any mistakes or tickets issued when there's a route not being cleaned."
Williams also acknowledged that the city did not currently employ a modern vehicle tracking system, relying instead on paper-and-pencil crew logs. In other words, the city could not confirm when sweepers were actually hitting their assigned routes. The streets commissioner said the city planned to install GPS devices on mechanical brooms and work to improve its on-time sweeping rate in the new year.
In April, the city launched a pilot covering six neighborhoods that could, eventually, eliminate the need for residents to move their cars during posted street sweeping times. It's still unclear which streets will be part of the pilot or when they'll be swept.
Williams did admit this new program will not include any of the routes the city currently sweeps during the day, but he is hopeful the pilot will uncover strategies for sweeping the city's streets that do not revolve around parking enforcement. "The failure of the first program, although it had good intentions, was most people complained about moving their cars," he said. "We think mechanical sweeping does make a big difference when it's done correctly."
Reporters Taylor Allen, Jake Blumgart, Evan Bowen-Gaddy, and Robert Brod contributed to the above report. In May, WHYY's Ryan Briggs provided an update to the story.
The new budget includes $2.3 million next year and $11.7 million over the life of the plan to implement street sweeping in more neighborhoods. Philadelphia is currently the only large municipality without a comprehensive street sweeping plan. This funding bump is the first substantial increase to the city's street cleaning efforts in decades.
Decades of budget cuts and complaints from residents over street cleaning-related parking enforcement led the city to reduce cleaning operations to only certain major streets. By 2004, the Streets Department was devoting just $400,000 to litter collection.
Despite campaign pledges from Kenney to take on the city's litter problem, by 2018 the department was still spending just $850,000 on sweeping from the agency's $90 million budget. Streets Commissioner Carlton Williams said the new funding increase would allow for "vast" improvements to the current cleaning program. "It will double the size of our current fleet. This allows us to add another 15 broom (trucks) and 40 laborers," he said. "We'll be able to expand the program vastly as a result of this budget increase."
Still, the Streets Department's internal estimates state that it would cost $3 to $5 million annually to maintain citywide cleaning, along with tens of millions more in upfront costs to augment existing street cleaning equipment.
Philadelphia is now launching a first-of-its-kind sanitation pilot effort that will seek to clean up six particularly trash-strewn sections of the city. Philadelphia Managing Director Brian Abernathy said the city would soon test an experimental method of cleaning streets without the need for ticketing – namely, deploying an army of workers armed with backpack-mounted leaf blowers and hand brooms to dislodge trash from underneath parked cars. The pilot will include neighborhoods that, by evaluation, are dirty, Abernathy said of the pilot areas. "They have more litter than the average community. We wanted to start where the need was highest."
Abernathy said the areas were selected through a "data-driven process" involving the city's so-called "litter index." This index ranks neighborhoods on a scale from one to four Ñ from relatively clean streets to areas that have experienced repeat illegal dumping. Abernathy said all of the neighborhoods selected for cleaning had consistently scored a "two" or worse. The enhanced cleaning program will cost $425,000 to run through the remainder of this fiscal year, with future years funded out of Kenney's proposed bump to the sanitation budget – assuming the mayor's proposed budget clears a City Council vote.
Mayor Jim Kenney has also announced that he would seek to triple the street-sweeping budget to $2.3 million for this project, as well as the purchase of additional "broom trucks" and laborers to boost service across the city.
However, the new litter collection strategy has already drawn controversy from residents concerned about noise, efficacy, and other concerns. "Running a blower for one hour emits as much dangerous contaminants as driving a modern-day Toyota Camry from Philly to Tampa," said David Brindley, a volunteer with 5th Square, an urbanist political action committee. "I have not seen any indication that the Health Department or Office of Sustainability has weighed in on the effect this will have on air quality."
Brindley's group went so far as to produce a staged video showing the blower packs in action, which purports to show that the strategy is flawed. In the recording, muck that has built up in the curb line is messily ejected onto a nearby vehicle by the force of the blower. "Leaf blowers do little to remove caked-on sludge," Brindley said.
Abernathy said he had heard these complaints and seen the video. He emphasized that the leaf blower project was part of a flexible and ongoing effort to improve litter collection citywide, and could be revised.
"We think this is an interesting model to try. I don't think we're wedded to it. We want to learn as much as we can from it going forward," he said. "I don't think any of us are naive enough to say this is going to be a perfect process, but we're excited that we're finally tackling some of the trash and litter issues the city has faced."
On May 3rd, Inquirer reporter, Mike Newall, provided an update entitled "Surviving a trash tempest with South Philly's new street sweepers" that included the following:
"I may have sounded a little desperate in my last column on street sweeping, when I invited the city's new army of trash blowers to, and I quote: Fire them up. Blast that dust right in my face. Just clean the street.
"Thursday morning I was almost eating those words when I found myself standing on Seventh Street in South Philly, in the middle of a tempest of trash. The city's new street crew was hard at work, using backpack leaf blowers to push a week's worth of filth from under cars and off curbs into the street, where a mechanical sweeper hoovered it up.
"At times, it felt as if you could cross Seventh and not once touch concrete, your feet borne, Christlike, on cheesesteak wrappers, deli napkins, and paper cups. And the dust. My God, the South Philly dust, centuries of it blasted into the air, swirling in great clouds. Old men pulled their undershirts to their noses. Women shielded children's faces.
"It's hard to believe how dirty our streets are until you witness that wake of trash rustled up by the blowers. Sometimes the mechanical sweeper leaves pools of trash behind, but, once the dust settles, it's an absolute, almost surprising relief to see a cleaner street.
It's also clear, watching this pilot in action on car-clogged South Philly streets, that moving cars for a street-sweeping program would be a feat. Most neighbors I talked to on Seventh Street said they'd move their cars. Where to is another question."
To listen to a podcast on this situation by Philadelphia public radio's WHYY, click here.
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