It Would Only Cost $3 Million a Year to Streetsweep All of Philly Twice a Month

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Ryan Briggs follows up on our post about parking politics as the primary obstacle to widespread streetsweeping service with some great reporting on how much it would actually cost to offer street sweep the whole city twice a month. Turns out it's only $3 million:

It might sound too good to be true, but what’s even more unbelievable is that officials in Philadelphia say it might be even cheaper to clean up our famously trash-choked city — in fact, a bigger obstacle than money could be city residents themselves [...]

“To mechanically clean the entire city on a bi-weekly basis we estimate that it would require an initial capital investment of $18 million for equipment and $3 million in annual salaries,” says June Cantor, spokesperson for Philadelphia’s Streets Department, which handles municipal-trash collection and street-cleaning duties.

That’s right — $3 million a year to clean the entire city twice a week. To put that number into perspective, this year the city will spend $2.5 million of its $4.5 billion budget to renovate a single dilapidated canoe house on Kelly Drive. Not that you should expect to see street sweepers on your block anytime soon.

$3 million is a pittance compared to the size of the budget, and cleaner streets would only help revenue collections in the medium term by increasing property values. 

So what's the hold up? As we argued, it's parking:

With the relatively low cost of modern street cleaning and, potentially, sanitation workers to spare, Philadelphia should be poised to introduce more robust litter collection. But the failure to do so may be caused by something much more mundane than money or staff cuts — namely, parking. 

“Many residents do not wish to move their cars [on street-cleaning days]. … Even when we had the limited residential program, many neighborhoods declined the service,” Cantor says.

There, in four words, lies the problem with Philadelphia's approach to streets policy: "Neighborhoods declined the service." 

Why was it ever left up to the neighborhoods to decide whether they want it in the first place? Streetsweeping should be citywide service, mandated by the Streets department for every neighborhood. The "sacrifice" we'd be asking for from car owners - moving their cars two times every 30 days - is so trivial it doesn't even rise to the level of an inconvenience.

So where would we get the money for this?

Ryan makes the interesting observation that we don't actually need 3-person trash collection crews. This is just a make-work union rule put in place in the late 80's. New York City gets by with 2-person crews that apparently are as efficient as Philadelphia's 3-person crews. When NYC instituted the 2-person crews, there was a temporary 10% dip in service efficiency, but they were quickly up to full service again. 

Politically, it would be difficult to get City Council to make a push for 2-person crews as a standalone initiative. But could that initiative be paired with a push for a citywide streetsweeping service, with some of the redundant third man trash collectors reassigned to street sweeping?

That way there's no need for layoffs - we just get an expansion of street cleaning service. 

This $3 million number is an important source of ammunition for those who want to see a cleaner, more self-respectful Philadelphia. It proves that "Filthadelphia" isn't a problem of too little money, it's a problem of too little leadership.

As the frustrating Twitter exchange at the top shows, without leadership to force the issue on streetsweeping, we're just going to keep going around and around as to whether this is a problem of personal responsibility or a municipal responsibility. It's time that city leaders came down firmly on the side of municipal responsibility.


Last Updated: Friday, 02 May 2014 @ 13.12
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jongeeting's picture Jon Geeting About the Author:

Jon Geeting is a Philadelphia-based freelance journalist and policy researcher. His writing also appears at Next City, Primary Colors, and Keystone Politics, where he covers politics and elections, land use and transportation, and urban economic policy. He also writes a monthly Political Machine column at Philly City Paper.