Mayor Jim Kenney really would like to get the Sweeperheads off his case about breaking his campaign promise to bring back citywide street sweeping, and in his budget address this week, he committed another $2.3 million to increase sweeping service. That earned Kenney some glowing headlines, but reading deeper into the Mayor's plan, it's clear it's not time to put the pitchforks down yet.
The first big problem is that the program still isn't aiming for true universal coverage even several years in, and the Mayor and Streets Commissioner, Carlton Williams, are still using the word "pilot" to talk about all this.
Pilots are supposed to be for ideas that haven't been tried yet—not fully-matured, core municipal services that have been in effect in all other large U.S. cities for many decades. Street sweeping is a solved problem that there really isn't anything more we need to learn about, especially since we used to do it here. You put up signs telling people when they need to move their cars, and then you drive through with the sweeper truck.
The only reason we're doing a pilot is because the Mayor wants to try a bizarre, less effective version of the program that he thinks could help him avoid some parking acrimony, when he could just spend a little political capital and confront the issue head-on.
Instead, he's already saying things like, "Where possible we will ask residents to move their cars as we work to keep streets clean." Where possible? Where exactly is this not possible?
And Streets Commissioner Carlton Williams is already publicly assuming people won't move their cars as a result of the yet-undefined form of encouragement the City will be issuing, saying "but we will encourage residents to move their cars. And when they don't, we’ll use blowers to blow the trash into the street where the trucks can be effective.”
Making conflict avoidance the top priority of this program comes with a huge cost, as the additional funds will only cover sweeping in six neighborhoods using large crews of people with gas-powered leaf-blowers and brooms. From WHYY's report:
"Streets Commissioner Carlton Williams said the new funding increase would allow for “vast” improvements to the current cleaning program.
“It will double the size of our current fleet. This allows us to add another 15 broom (trucks) and 40 laborers,” he said. “We’ll be able to expand the program vastly as a result of this budget increase."
Still, the Streets Department’s internal estimates state that it would cost $3 to $5 million annually to maintain citywide cleaning, along with tens of millions more in upfront costs to augment existing street cleaning equipment.
Williams said the initial funding boost would bring restored cleaning to six targeted neighborhoods –– to be announced later this spring –– as part of a previously announced pilot program.
So here's the issue in a nutshell: the additional $2.3 million in operating funds appear to be enough to fund cleaning for just six neighborhoods under the leaf blowers-and-brooms version of this program. (And with no capital expenditure associated with this, we're definitely getting the leaf blowers version.) But prior estimates from Streets, which were presumably based on the much more straightforward version with mechanized sweepers and alternate-side parking, put the cost of a universal sweeping program at just a few million dollars more than that per year.
That's a really bad value, and the administration is going to point to the crazy high cost structure as the reason why it can't be universal. But the high cost structure is entirely a function of the Mayor's squeamishness about taking on the free curb parking people, not an inherent issue with street sweeping in general. They're making a choice to do it the expensive way, but their own numbers say a cheaper choice is possible.
And that's just the money problem. The air quality impact from gas-powered leaf blowers can't just be shrugged off. It seems highly doubtful that the Managing Director's office consulted any public health or environmental professionals at the City before advancing this idea, considering all the evidence out there about their terrible environmental impact.
Leaf blowers, by one estimate, contribute 81% more emissions than a car, and increase smog and fine particulates—the biggest contributor to Philadelphia's well-documented high asthma rates.
"The small off-road engines category is giving the auto a run for its money as a source of emissions that lead to smog, in part because cars burn gasoline much more cleanly than they once did. In one comparison, California officials say the contamination from running a top-selling leaf blower for just one hour matches the emissions from driving a 2016 Toyota Camry for 1,100 miles, the distance from Los Angeles to Denver. The pollutants in the leaf blower-versus-car comparisons are oxides of nitrogen and reactive organic gases."
"The contribution of leaf blowers to air pollution isn't to be underestimated. About 5 pounds of particulate matter per leaf blower per hour are swept into the air and take hours to settle, according to a widely cited leaf-blower pollution report by the Orange County, California grand jury in 1999."
Here too, making conflict avoidance the central animating principle of city policy comes with a high cost that will be paid in higher asthma rates and respiratory issues in children, who don't even get a vote on this.
It's a good thing that the Mayor feels the need to finally act on his campaign promise, 11 weeks before the primary election, but his opening salvo doesn't make sense, and it compromises way too much on universality, effectiveness, and air quality for no better reason than avoiding conflict with car owners. We have to do better. Advocates need to keep the pressure on for a truly universal program that keeps the core program function—cleaning all the streets—at the center of the mission.
Sign our petition calling on Mayor Kenney to keep his campaign promise, and launch a real citywide street sweeping program for Philadelphia by the end of his first term.