When Philly finally announced in December that it would possibly, maybe, someday be instituting a pilot street-cleaning program, I said sign me up to steer one of those trash Zambonis.
Glorious trash Zambonis, I called them.
Back then I envisioned cruising down great frontiers of car-free streets, hoovering up refuse.
I did not, in these reveries, imagine manhandling a fume-spewing leaf blower around beached Buicks.
I should be given some slack. This is not a plan that has been instituted in any other big city in the country, but it’s the plan that Philly officials have settled on, apparently to assuage the concerns of our most fragile Philadelphians: car owners.
Yes, we’re so afraid of asking people to move their cars that we’re going to deputize a small army of trash blowers to push rubbish under, around, and possibly over parked cars and into the path of the aforementioned street sweepers.
For years we have been the only major city in the country without a real street-sweeping program. We are undeniably filthy. We are also Philadelphia, and so we undeniably do everything our way, no matter how head-scratching.
The pilot, first reported last week by PlanPhilly’s Ryan Briggs and Aaron Moselle, has obviously kicked up some dust.
Mainly, critics worry that it will be ineffective and inefficient — and bad for the environment.
Did the city even consult the health department about a plan reliant on noisy, gas-powered blowers, which are so viewed as unhealthy nuisances that they are banned in Anchorage, Alaska, and some California cities, asked Jon Geeting, of the political reform group Philadelphia 3.0.
In an editorial for the Philadelphia Citizen, he pointed to studies that say a blower emits as much as 81 percent more pollutants than a car. And he made more obvious points: Some city gutters are so caked and cemented with trash, blowers wouldn’t likely crack a dent. He’s right there. We may have to arm these workers with pickaxes.
The plan, Geeting and others argue, fits with the city’s nearly decades-long intransigence when it comes to street sweeping – of making something solvable seem impossible.
“Keeping city streets relatively clean is a solvable problem other cities have solved long ago — it isn’t a mystery,” Geeting told me. “The fact that we’re not looking at long-established solutions but instead trying to reinvent the wheel says something really sad about how much we’re willing to bend to parking entitlement politics.”
For his part, city Managing Director Brian Abernathy doesn’t pretend the plan is perfect, and concedes that, yes, parking is a central concern.
“I was presented a problem: filth and dirt and litter and recognition that forcing people to move their cars failed in the past,” he told me. “We want something that works. I thought this was the best way to do it.”
The city didn’t first consult with the health department, Abernathy acknowledges. “That’s fair criticism,” he said, but he added that he doesn’t intend to scrap the program, even if battery-operated blowers aren’t feasible — that the blowers could save on emissions of people moving their cars and the trucks having to take extra passes. He’s trying to clean the streets, he said. And the blowers will reach sidewalk trash, too, and create jobs for the people needed to lug them around.
The pilot is set to start in April in six yet-unnamed neighborhoods. It shouldn’t be viewed as an end-all, be-all, Abernathy said. But a work in progress.
This isn’t a moon shot. It’s getting people to move their car once a week.
It’s a testament to how enraging this trash problem is that as soon as I heard about the trash blowers, my first thought was Great! Fine. Fire them up, blast that dust right in my face, just clean the street. And in fairness to Abernathy, this is a cultural fight as much as it is a trash one — the decades we spent without street cleaning, leaving our cars parked in the same spot for months on end have primed us for immobility — and keep us from a simple solution. At least the city is trying to do something. We need to make sure it’s going to work.
So now we have trash blowers. Perhaps they’ll lead us to a true-blue, move-your-damn-car street-sweeping program. I just wish that our first concern in policymaking wasn’t car owners. In the meantime, I’m hopeful, but holding out for my Zamboni.