Every time you think the city’s new street-sweeping program can’t get more Philadelphian, it gets more Philadelphian.
First, we couldn’t have street sweeping at all, because most residents of our fine city are legally married to their cars and have parental custody over their parking spots, and God help the mayor who tries to move them in order to clean the streets.
Then, we decided we could tackle the problem with gas-powered leaf-blowers, pushing trash from the sidewalks into the streets, sending dramatic clouds of dust into the windpipes of South Philadelphians, and hoovering up the refuse with specially purchased street-sweeping trucks.
It’s here that our story descends even further into the absurd. As WHYY reporter Aaron Moselle revealed this week, it turns out the street-sweeping trucks, purchased for a cool $2.73 million, are too wide to squeeze past the cars on some of our city’s narrow neighborhood streets.
For those unfamiliar with our colonial-era city’s charming byways, which apparently includes the city officials tasked with solving this problem, too wide means 9 feet.
There’s a big caveat here: Streets are still getting swept and the new trucks are being put to use, cleaning wider streets, Streets Department Commissioner Carlton Williams stressed to me. So the money spent on the trucks wasn’t thrown in the gutter, he said.
“All of these brooms are being used," he said of the beefy trucks.
The problem is that they can’t fit down 10 percent of the streets in the pilot neighborhoods. Anyone who’s ever played bumper cars trying to navigate a South Philly side street could have warned you of this. (I stand in awe of the brave warriors who manage to park anything bigger than a Beetle on certain stretches of Mole or Winton Streets.)
I’ve been out with the hardworking guys blowing trash maelstroms down my neighborhood’s streets. They’re getting the streets cleaner. But I should have been a bit suspicious when the street-sweeper truck seemed to hew only to the grand thoroughfares around Seventh and Snyder.
As Moselle reported, the wider trucks are obviously causing some delays. The trash blowers have to walk an entire block’s length on the narrow side streets in some neighborhoods and push their load of garbage onto a wider avenue. Crews are having to run figure-eights around neighborhoods, not finishing on time, or failing to get to other filthy streets. As Moselle reported, in some neighborhoods that means half the routes aren’t getting clean.
Look, as silly as this predicament is, sweeping the streets in Philadelphia is deceptively complicated. It’s hard to persuade people to move their cars after years of not having to, and hard to imagine, in a car-clogged neighborhood, where they’d put them.
But maybe someone should have pulled out a measuring tape before we pressed “order” on the trash tanks.
To the city’s credit, this oversize fleet does not seem to spell defeat. (Forgive me.) City officials are treating this as an obstacle to overcome, not an insurmountable problem, even if it does mean ponying up a few more dollars — about $250,000 for each new smaller truck, the city said — at the expense of a few traditional garbage trucks.
What’s scared me from the start about this pilot is that it could be nothing more than an election-year show set up to fail. But the city’s efforts to fix it feel genuine.
As a measure of how bad we’ve let our trash problem fester, the trash crews swept up 300 tons of trash in the last six weeks, Williams said. The department is tracking tonnage weekly, he said, to measure if streets are actually staying cleaner — yes in some areas of South and West Philly, no in Kensington, so plagued by illegal dumping, Williams said. Think of what they’d be doing without the delays.
The department installed GPS systems to track route productivity and are planning to release maps to the public so they can be held accountable for what streets are being hit and how often. They are testing new machines for the smaller streets, considering whether cars should be moved on some streets and if the blowers are the best way forward.
“We are asking the public’s patience because we want to get it right,” he said.