Why's Philly So Dirty? Blame Our Parking Politics.

Street cleaning shouldn't just be for rich areas who can afford to pay extra taxes

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Duncan Black argues that street cleaning is a basic government service that a big city must provide - not something people should voluntarily do, or pay extra taxes to a special service district to do:

I'm a bad person for not participating in the regular annual or semi-annual citizen street cleaning activities here in the urban hellhole, but it's really time for the powers that be to recognize that cleaning the damn streets is part of their responsibility. Volunteerism is lovely, but it isn't a substitute for regular and guaranteed government action. Also, too, street cleaning machines.

The practice of setting up special business tax districts with an additional layer of bureaucracy and enforcement/collection mechanisms to do these things in the few neighborhoods where it happens is highly inefficient. Buy some machines, hire some people.

I had the opportunity to witness the awesome power of the street sweeper machines on January 1st after the Mummer's Day parade's nighttime festivities ended on 2nd St.

If you've never been, everybody drinks outside on the southern end of Two Street, and by the end of the night the gutters are absolutely full of crushed up beer cans and party detritus. Drunkenly trashing the city is a funny way to ring in the New Year that runs counter to the purifying activities many people like to engage in on New Year's Day - dieting, exercise, giving up bad habits, etc.

Here is Philly we love to start the year off wrong. But that's fine because when the parade is over, the street sweeper rolls through and it basically looks like nothing ever happened. Beer can mountains = gone. These things are extremely powerful.

A cursory Google says these things cost about $150-200K - not an insignificant capital investment, but definitely not so prohibitively expensive as to sufficiently explain why Philadelphia doesn't provide street cleaning service to all neighborhoods. The property value increase from visibly cleaner neighborhoods alone would justify the investment. 

But as usual, the reason we can't have nice things all comes back to parking.

In order for a street sweeper to clean each street's curbs once or twice a week, they'd actually have to be able to get right up next to the curb. This would require an alternate-side parking policy. Four days a week, people would have to move their cars to the other side of the street, leaving one side fully open for the sweeper to come through.

Many people commute out of the city in the morning so this wouldn't be a problem for a lot of people, but many people are accustomed to being able to leave their cars in the same space for days or even weeks at a time. Many people would be mad if they had to re-park their cars multiple times a week. And they'd also be mad if a third to half of the curb parking spaces momentarily disappeared throughout the week in order to make way for the street sweepers.

Granted, the spaces would go away at off-peak times when many commuters' cars are gone and parking vacancy on neighborhood streets is naturally higher. So whether it would actually be difficult for people to find parking spaces under an alternate-side parking policy is a highly debateable proposition. But just the simple inconvenience factor would make the idea a tough sell in some areas, given our parking-chaired politics.

People wonder why Philly is so much dirtier than it has to be, and assume that the problem is a lack of money for street sweeping services but it's just not true. The biggest obstacle to cleaner streets is our parking politics.

Last Updated: Monday, 07 April 2014 @ 14.54
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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.