Street sweeping is a delicate topic in Philadelphia.

It may not arrive fully until 2023, but Mayor Jim Kenney’s promise to establish a citywide program that may require some residents to regularly move their cars has spurred questions — even as an evaluation is due out of a pilot program that traded parking regulations for leaf blowers.

Some believe Philadelphia has long remained a big city without a proper street cleaning program because of parking politics. Former City Councilmember Frank DiCicco says he gave up efforts in South Philly because of complaints.

But Kenney has prioritized cleaner and safer streets in his second term — and is looking toward New York as an example.

“We’ve made some dent in the problem with the handheld blowers and the sweepers in the middle of the street. It just isn’t enough, and people need to move the cars,” the mayor said in January. “They move their cars in Manhattan every week; they can move their cars in Philly.”

Philly’s been in touch with New York to answer some technical questions, said Kathryn Garcia, commissioner of New York City’s Department of Sanitation, where drivers move their cars for street cleaning in nearly all of its 59 sanitation districts. Garcia said that to have clean streets, cars need to be moved.

“I don’t think that [car owners in New York] enjoy moving their cars, but they want the car in front of their house to move,” she said. “Because when the streets are clean, that, in general, makes them happy.”

In Philly, it’s not clear if residents in every neighborhood will need to regularly move their vehicles, but it’s worth asking who will, and how often. What will the consequences be in a city where many rely on their cars, but there’s been a reluctance to ticket illegal parking and a “courtesy tow” problem?

A look elsewhere

In New York, alternate-side parking, where motorists are made to clear one side of the street, makes way for the cleaning. Street cleaning regulations have been around for decades, with a few districts without residential street cleaning still responsible for maintaining cleanliness, said Belinda Mager, director of digital media and communications at the New York City Department of Sanitation.

Alternate-side rules have been a target for criticism. They have been called a “scam,” sparked an online petition, and even spurred Mayor Bill de Blasio to think about changes after a Brooklyn resident expressed frustration during a radio show last spring over needing to move four times a week.

The method is the “most effective way of dealing with keeping the streets clean,” Garcia said.

“It’s more of a burden on somebody who’s only using their car like every other week; they’re going to have to move it,” she said. “But if you’re commuting in your car, you’re going to get up in the morning and go to work. And then the street sweeper will come by, and then you’ll come home and you’ll park your car.”

Philadelphia is the only major U.S. city without a street sweeping program. In Boston, there’s a daytime street sweeping program from April until November in most neighborhoods and a yearly nighttime street sweeping program for main roads.

Chicago uses mechanical street sweepers and posts parking restrictions at least a day ahead of the service between April and mid-November. Some main streets have permanent signs specifying weekly regulations, according to the Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation.

The Philadelphia Streets Department has looked into other cities’ approaches but has not made calls outside of New York, according to city spokesperson Kelly Cofrancisco.

Abandoned cars

When Philadelphia did have a regular street sweeping program more than a decade ago, residents in Queen Village faced parking restrictions twice a month between March and December, according to signs left in the area. It wasn’t something Eleanor Ingersoll, president of the Queen Village Neighbors Association, got upset about.

“When you grow up, or you come up, with that being the way things worked, you just do it,” she said.

Looking for a parking spot in the area now can be quite the feat. Sarah Anton, president of the Passyunk Square Civic Association, recognizes the tension, knowing that there always will be some neighbors who would rather not deal with the inconvenience.

Anton sees the potential for street sweeping to bring attention to another problem.

“If anything, it might be that we identify abandoned cars by this program, which would be a good thing,” she said, “and would make more true parking spaces available so that there’s more kind of inventory within our neighborhoods.”

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The Philadelphia Police Department towed 11,531 abandoned vehicles last year, a jump from 10,298 in 2018. In 2019, tows were most highly concentrated in the 15th and 25th Police Districts, stretching across parts of North and Northeast Philadelphia. The department called abandoned vehicle removal “central to the mayor’s street-cleaning pilot program.”

In 2000, Mayor John F. Street led an effort to rid the city of 40,000 abandoned cars during a 40-day “tow-athon.” It ended up removing 32,852 cars.

This is part of the process of reclaiming neighborhoods,” then-Managing Director Joseph S. Martz said in 2000. “The city can do what it’s capable of doing. Neighbors, who live there, have to do more. They have to help us be successful. We can send mechanical brooms to neighborhoods. People have to move their cars” for the sweepers.

Winners and losers

For Erick Guerra, an associate professor in city and regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania, the conversation may be more about winners and losers than positives or negatives.

“You can probably think about how people use their vehicles,” he said. “So you know, the biggest losers are going to be people who use their cars very infrequently, who just kind of park them and store them in a place. And the biggest winners are likely to be people who are using their cars every day.”

Jonas Maciunas, principal of JVM Studio, a West Philadelphia urban design consulting firm, agrees that moving cars is fundamental to having clean streets — that “street sanitation is a hallmark of cities since the dawn of civilization.”

The question is one of political will and leadership, Maciunas said, who notes it’s a different era, when services like Uber or Zipcar create more options for the infrequent driver.

Having an established program in Philadelphia is likely to have some ripple effects, and while not its core purpose could potentially get people to think twice about their car usage.

“It’s important to sort of acknowledge that ball of yarn may take a while to unwind, but it’s not to say you shouldn’t start,” Maciunas said. “But right now, I think we’ve packed the sausage really full, and it’s a problem because then you can’t move.”