Kenney Street Sweeping Pilot Would Make Air Quality Worse to Avoid Tough Parking Politics

Ryan Briggs and Aaron Moselle report that Mayor Kenney plans to pilot a version of a street sweeping program in six neighborhoods that will avoid asking anyone to move their cars by instead hiring people to blow all the curbside trash into the middle of the street and sweeping it up there.

There are a lot of problems with this idea, the largest among them being the environmental hazards of kicking up a lot of dust that, as we know from recent reporting, is often full of toxic heavy metals.

Here's what the administration is planning to do, according to PlanPhilly interview:

In an interview, the city’s managing director, Brian Abernathy, said the upcoming pilot would focus on strategies that allowed cars to stay put while streets are swept.

“The pilot is actually going to be a mixture of mechanical sweepers, as well as laborers who will blow trash into the street, where the sweepers will then pick it up, so folks don’t have to move their cars,” he said.

Abernathy did not give specifics but said the program would target six neighborhoods “that need the most assistance with street sweeping”  The locations, he said, will be determined in part by the city’s so-called “litter index.”

“Not surprisingly, those areas are often some of the communities that have seen the fewest city services,” he added.

We still need a lot more details, but even just conceptually the plan is a hot mess right from the start. First, they're talking about having what will probably have to be at least a three-person crew, which makes the program unnecessarily costly to administer and harder to expand to cover all neighborhoods universally.

Managing Director Brian Abernathy wants to frame the administration's position in equity terms ("communities that have seen the fewest services"), but this is really just a diversion. The reality is that, going off of the Streets Department's own estimates of $3-5 million to sweep every neighborhood once or twice a month, a universal street sweeping program would be trivially cheap to administer.

And because it's so cheap to supply everybody with equal services, there's just no reason to accept that we're living in the kind of Hunger Games framework Abernathy is proposing. Now that they're trying to run this extra-high overhead version of the program though, just to avoid making people move their cars, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that the program will become too expensive and inefficient to run city-wide. 

A leaf blower also can't dislodge all the caked-on dirt and silt that have built up on many curbs after decades of neglect by the City. When I volunteered for my local spring clean-up last year, I shoveled about a half-block's worth of that silt near Shissler Rec in Fishtown. It filled about 10 trash bags, and they were probably about 80-90 pounds each. There's a ton of legacy crud out there that a leaf blower isn't going to be able to get. We need sweeper brushes to be able to get right up on the curb.

The other big leaf blower problem—and this is the worst part of the whole plan—is that two-stroke gas-powered motor leaf blowers are extremely dirty and terrible for air quality. According to one source, they contribute 81% more emissions than a car, and contribute to smog and fine particulates in the air. 

"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."

Because of the particulate pollution, as well as serious noise pollution concerns, leaf blowers have been banned for street sweeping use in Anchorage, Alaska, and have also been banned for all-purpose use all over California

"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."

Has the administration even consulted their Health Department or the Office of Sustainability about this idea? It's hard to imagine they could have, seeing some of the damning environmental reporting that's readily available out there. In a city with such high asthma rates to begin with, and what we know about the lead and other industrial heavy metals that exist in our street dust, this is a very steep price for everyone—and particularly children—to have to pay purely so the Mayor can avoid a tough conversation over street parking.

To demand a universal street sweeping service covering all of Philadelphia, add your name to our petition calling on the Mayor to keep his campaign promise and get this done in his first term

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  • Richard Kinney
    commented 2019-01-21 12:45:01 -0500
    The incompetence demonstrated by city officials in their “efforts” to implement what should be a fundamental city service is jaw-dropping. Clearly, those responsible have little interest, understanding or concern for just how bad a problem accumulated street filth has become in Philadelphia. When did mandating residents to move their vehicles periodically, in exchange for cleaner streets, become such an intimidating challenge?
  • Chris Labovitz
    commented 2019-01-19 00:53:33 -0500
    People are parking illegally ON the sidewalks all over Tacony. The streets have plenty of passages. It’s the sidewalks that are impossible to navigate.
  • Nick S
    commented 2019-01-18 14:33:21 -0500
    Totally agree that two-stroke engines are the devil, but I would say that other than noise pollution your environmental argument are spurious. A single leaf blower that comes down your block once or twice a month that has particulate emissions that are 84% higher than a single car is not an environmental threat. In nyc on street sweeping days everyone is just a block away idling and waiting for the street sweeper to pass. If everyone had to move their car just for sweeping it would yield more excess particulate levels than a leaf blower (assuming there is more than one car on your block). I would say they should invest in electric leaf blowers and a ton of battaries, but admit I don’t know the decibel savings of electric blowers. In terms of NOx emissions, those are def staggering figures, but how many crews are we talking about and would that be mitigated if it were electric blowers? I would be very surprised if there was any detectable impact of a few crews using these. Its a problem in CA because of the scale: there are 12.9 million small engines.

    Also I’m not sure how digging a foundation for crappy new development differs from leaf blowing in terms of suspending particulates and heavy metals but I would assume leaf blowers would would be less as its not physically unearthing legacy pollution by the truckload. I would also assume that street cleaners suspend a similar amount of particulates as leaf blowers (and would bet that leaf blower suspension rates are more similar to street sweepers than foundation digging). I would say at lease 20% of the trash in front of my house is from various real estate developments. Maybe they can help pay?

    trying this out w/ electric blowers might not be so bad? Not sure what to do about the legacy curb-side gunk you mention. Maybe once annually the gunk gets hauled out?

    I’m not sure if this is a justification on their side but I like the idea that my lower income neighbors won’t be pelted w/ tickets for not moving their cars on street sweeping day because they have inflexible work schedules or maybe their car just doesn’t start that day.