$2.73 million later, Philly realizes street sweepers are too wide for city’s narrow blocks

Philly’s street sweeping experiment has hit a sizable snag — a nine-foot-wide snag, to be exact.

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The city's street sweeping pilot in June 2019. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The city's street sweeping pilot in June 2019. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

This article originally appeared on PlanPhilly.

Philly’s street sweeping experiment has hit a sizable snag — a nine-foot-wide snag, to be exact.

The 10 new street sweepers purchased for the pilot program at a cost of $2.73 million can’t easily fit down many of the city’s narrow blocks.

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The mismatch means that six weeks into the pilot program intended to reduce the amount of garbage on city streets, officials are already talking about buying a new set of vehicles.

“We’re looking at other trucks that will be able to kind of supplant what we’re doing right now, which is getting down those small streets that are tight,” Streets Department Commissioner Carlton Williams said.

Each additional street sweeper would cost the city $250,000. The department hasn’t decided how many of the slimmer sweepers may be needed.

If new trucks are purchased, taxpayers will see less spending on other city vehicles, like trash-compacting garbage trucks.

“Each year, we look at our capital budget for vehicles that we purchase. Sweeping is certainly one of our priorities, so we may not get as many compactors for trash,” Williams said.

The new fleet of sweepers was supposed to roll down streets and remove the trash blown out by gas-powered leaf blowers from sidewalks and underneath cars.  The blowers are needed because the city isn’t requiring residents to move their cars, a decision that sets the city apart from peer cities like New York.

But because the 9-foot wide trucks are too big to navigate around parked cars on dozens of narrow streets that are part of a six-neighborhood pilot, Streets Department workers have to blow their collection of wrappers, plastic bags and other litter down the length of these blocks onto wider streets so the sweepers are able to collect the debris.

The maneuver slows down each six-worker crew considerably creating delays that result in trucks running out of time to complete their routes and failing to make it to some areas — a problem for the program.  It took a reporter three trips to three different pilot neighborhoods to find street sweepers in action completing their scheduling route.

Williams readily acknowledged his crews have missed shifts on the pilot schedule, and that inconsistent sweeping hurts the city’s goal of cutting the amount of trash swept up week to week. Right now, the program’s baseline total for weekly trash collection is 10 tons.

“If you don’t hit [a route] consistently week to week, the amount of garbage will continue to accumulate. Then that’s more tonnage that you’ll have to collect and we’ll always be behind the 8 ball,” Williams said.

The trucks already purchased for the pilot will remain part of the department’s fleet, even if the city buys narrowers trucks to take over in some areas. 

Fixing routes in ‘real time’

In the meantime, Streets is making adjustments that the department hopes will increase efficiency between now and December when the program’s first phase ends. A second phase of the pilot is planned for April 2020.

One of those fixes is in Kensington where city officials quickly realized they underestimated the time it would take to clean the area. By far the largest sweep zone in the pilot, it spans more than 200 blocks. Cleaning just two of the blocks has taken up to two hours so far during the pilot, officials said.

“There’s a lot of open space where illegal dumping takes place frequently. We had to manually collect bag and things that wouldn’t get caught up in a mechanical broom sweeper, so that slows crews down and increases tonnage in those areas,” Williams said.

More often than not,  sweeping the neighborhood required an extra, unscheduled day of cleaning.

The neighborhood is now split into two routes, each served by its own street sweeper.

In West Philadelphia, crews were more efficient than anticipated. One sweeper is now cleaning two sections of the pilot each week.

Williams hopes technology can help as the department continues to learn from the sweeping experiment.  

All 26 of the city’s sweepers are now equipped with GPS trackers. In May, the department started using the trackers to map — in close to real time — what’s getting cleaned day to day and week to week across the city. It’s a first for Philadelphia.

“We can adjust and move brooms around in those [pilot] areas,” Williams said. “It’s a really helpful tool for us to be able to gather data and to track and monitor how the program is progressing.”

As part of a larger effort to be more transparent about its work, the department plans to release a public-facing version of this mapping interface sometime this summer so residents can track what’s getting cleaned in their neighborhood.

A street sweeping truck drives down a Philadelphia street. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A weekly map from mid-May shows some of the problems with the pilot the city is now trying to resolve. In some neighborhoods, close to half of the route wasn’t completed, including a section of Woodland Avenue in Southwest Philadelphia that was targeted by the program.

On a recent weekday morning, Abdul Basir sat outside on Woodland Avenue next to a fold-out table cluttered with dozens of squat glass bottles filled with body scents — baby powder, Jolly Rancher, frankincense.

Basir is posted here on the sidewalk seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. He hasn’t seen a street sweeper since the pilot launched April 15.

It showed. Scraps of trash littered the concrete in both directions.

“If we have to come out on our own we’ll do that, but I mean if they’re supposed to do it, they should do it,” Basir said.

Around the corner, John Witherspoon agreed. He said the neighborhood desperately needs some TLC.

“For the past 10 years, it’s been total chaos with the littering and the trash,” Witherspoon said.

A WHYY investigation revealed cleaning was even spottier for the street sweeping program the city maintains outside of the pilot.

It found trucks did not sweep the program’s eight daytime routes 75% of the time. Regardless, the Philadelphia Parking Authority ticketed residents for not moving their cars during designated street sweeping days.

The street sweeping pilot does not require residents to move their cars. The city is testing the model to see if it could be expanded citywide. If Philadelphia were to create a citywide program, it would end its reign as one of the only major American cities without a comprehensive street cleaning program.

Expanding street sweeping depends on the pilot’s success

Williams is optimistic the pilot’s problems will be resolved over the next two months, which is the midway point of the program’s first phase.

Residents like Tabitha Willis seem willing to reserve judgment until then. She’s pleased so far with the results — when the street sweepers have shown up.

From her stoop on A Street in Kensington, Willis said the sweepers have brought a smile to her face. A dirty block has the opposite effect.

“If I see like needles, wraps or jars on my steps it makes me in a bad mood cause I don’t do that. I shouldn’t [have to] wake up and walk out and look at that,” Willis said.

Block captain Francisco Rivera described clean streets as an urban antidepressant.

“As long as your block is clean, it’s a happy street. It’s a happy block and a safe street,” he said.

It’s too early to say what the second phase of the street sweeping pilot will look like, though the leaf blowers are likely here to stay. Despite complaints about air pollution, the gas-powered tools do not violate any federal environmental regulations, according to the city.

“We’ll certainly keep that dialogue open with the Health Department,” Williams said.

If the current model reduces the amount of garbage piling up in pilot neighborhoods, the program may expand beyond the 1,189 blocks now being swept.

In addition to Kensington, Strawberry Mansion and Southwest Philly, sweepers clean sections of South Philly, West Philly and Logan.

But before any new neighborhoods are brought in, the city will review how much crews were able to stay on time — and on the route.

No matter what happens to the makeup of the pilot, city officials hope residents can have realistic expectations for how quickly the city can shed it’s “Filthadelphia” moniker.

“The city did not get to this condition in six months, so it’s a little unrealistic to expect that we could resolve all the issues in six months,” said deputy Streets Commissioner Keith Warren.

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