Atlantic Cities

The Secret Art of Street Sweeping

The Secret Art of Street Sweeping
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Street sweeping is one of those vital municipal functions that affects everyone in the city, even though we know very little about it. Perhaps that's ignorance by choice. In case it isn't, we asked Douglas Marsiglia, chief of cleaning operations for the New York City Department of Sanitation, to give readers some insight into the process. And what better time to do so than the fall?

"A lot of people don't realize what a great service it is," Marsiglia says. "Especially this time of year — you've got all the leaves come down. That stuff would just be sitting in the street."

New York City street sweepers cover 6,000 miles a day at 8 miles per hour, enough to crawl across the country and back. At 7:30 in the morning the sweepers are working the metered parking areas. By 9 a.m., they've moved on to residential streets. Those get swept on alternate sides once or twice a week, with a supervisor ticketing cars that haven't cleared the curb. (A few districts, like Queens 10, don't get swept at all, says Marsiglia.)

The mechanical sweeper itself is a complex piece of equipment. Drivers first complete a training course at Floyd Bennett Field then work with a qualified pro before they're ready to go out on their own. They not only have to maneuver the unwieldy vehicle effectively, but clean all the inner parts at day's end, too. That maintenance is essential, says Marsiglia, because sweeping the whole city without mechanical brooms would be impossible.

"There's no way we could do this manually," he says. "We have to have this piece of equipment working and we have to make sure it's maintained properly, so it's always there when we need it."

There are some 450 mechanical sweepers in the city. To some people, they just look like they're pushing stuff aside.

They actually pick up the litter. They pick up any kind of small debris. They pick up dirt and dust — anything that's in their path.

They have what they call "gutter brooms." They sweep it to the middle, in between the broom. The broom runs it over. Then there's a pick-up broom that puts it onto like an escalator function, which we call "flights," which bring it up and deposit it into a hopper area of the broom. When the broom gets loaded it's very efficiently dumped into the back of a collection truck.

Meanwhile they spray water?

They have a water spray system that shoots the water off to the street, right in front of where the broom's going to pick up. It holds the dust down; it's also easier to pick up something that's semi-wet. It makes it easier for the [gutter] brooms to push it into the middle of the broom and have the pick-up brooms put it up into the escalator area.

I understand there's a cleanliness scorecard.

The mayor's office of operations does a scorecard report twice a month. Basically we're up in about the 94 percent [PDF] range for the city as streets acceptably clean.

Does the scorecard help you determine the frequency of sweeping?

The frequency of the sweeping was evaluated a while ago, many years ago, depending on the make-up of each district and each section.

There was something the City Council put out [in 2011] that, if districts that have two times a week sweeping, if they a 90 percent scorecard rating for their district for two fiscal years in a row prior to their request, then they could apply to get a reduced sweeping to one time a week. That's happened in a few districts.

Would it be conceivable for an area to need three times a week?

I think there's a lot of places that could use three times a week.

I've seen reports that street cleaning might actually increase driving and congestion.

What people do is, everyone's always looking for parking places, so if they have to move their car from in front of their housing — either they're driving around for the time that the mechanical broom would be coming down, so they don't get a summons, or they're taking that car to work whereas they may have taken public transportation. I guess you could look at it that way.

What do city residents need to understand about why it's so important to sweep the streets clean?

I know a lot of people don't like to move their car and be inconvenienced, but it's keeping the neighborhoods clean. Nobody wants to live in a dirty neighborhood. Nobody wants to do business in a dirty neighborhood or come visit a dirty neighborhood. So I think it's a great service.

Top image: Dmitry Kalinovsky /Shutterstock.com

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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