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Is Street Sweeping Just an Excuse to Hand Out Parking Tickets?

Weirdly enough, street sweeping has more to do with keeping local waterways clean than the street itself

What do those giant street-sweeping boxes on wheels — the ones with Dr. Seuss-like spinning brushes — actually do? They look like a Zamboni, they make a lot of noise and they slow traffic, but after they pass, is the street any cleaner? Or was the whole thing just a charade to issue tickets to people who forgot to move their car? Let’s find out. 

So, is there a point to street sweeping?

Sure, but it’s changed over time. Benjamin Franklin was the first person to come up with an organized street sweeping program, in Philadelphia. It wasn’t a machine with flashing lights and all those bells and whistles, obviously — it was people with brooms back then. They were there to clean up the mud, and likely, all the horseshit that littered our cities before Henry Ford came along and made horses (and their manure) obsolete. Nowadays, street sweeping has a whole bunch of benefits.

Such as?

Such as picking up trash the people leave, from plastic bags to diapers to just about any gross thing you can think of that ends up on a road one way or another. But aside from the trash you can see, street sweeping can make a huge difference in pollution. Most storm drains eventually lead to waterways, whether that’s your local stream, lake, bay or beach. Street sweeping helps to keep the big trash out of those, but also dust and dirt, which can really add up. In Washington, D.C., street sweepers collect more than 4,300 tons — tons! — of debris each year. Most of that would otherwise end up in your local river, beach, etc.

You know what else is secretly shitty for the environment? All sorts of discharge from cars on the road: oil leaks, tire particles and especially brake dust. Street sweeping aims to pick all that stuff up. In fact, since the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, street sweeping has become an important part of keeping waterways clean.

Does it directly affect me in any way?

You mean besides keeping clean such insignificant resources such as water and air? Uhhhh, well, your car doesn’t get as dusty and dirty so quickly. How’s that? 

Fine, I guess.

Okay, here’s another thing. In Chicago — where, you may have heard, it can snow a lot — keeping storm drains clean is a safety issue. If the storm drains get backed up, then the snow and slush won’t drain, and water stays on the street where, overnight, that water can freeze into ice. This turns winter driving into a real-life, low-speed game of Mario Kart, but with actual cars and safety and auto insurance and potential non-blue-shell-related deaths involved. 

Fair enough. Why do those trucks spray water, though? It’s not like those nozzles really clean anything.

They’re not for cleaning, they’re to keep the dust down for the quick moment before the machine picks up dirt, just so that the truck doesn’t create a giant Pigpen-like cloud of pollutant- and toxin-filled, asthma-triggering dust.

Huh. So come on then, what’s the deal with writing tickets because you didn’t move your car for the street sweeper?

Well, rather obviously, that’s so you’ll hopefully move your car next time. If you don’t, they have to drive around your car and the street doesn’t get as clean.

If street sweeping is so serious, why don’t they just tow offending cars?

Boston, somewhat characteristically, apparently does. The city contracts with private tow companies to get your “cah” out of the way, but the city also doesn’t miss the opportunity to ticket you first, before they arrange to have you towed.

How much do cities make on this?

Oh, lots! More than $15 million a year in Chicago; $8.1 million over 10 years in Philadelphia; nearly $4 million a year in D.C.

Where’s that money go?

It’s different in every city, but it often seems to go into a city’s general fund. Of course, a street cleaning program costs millions to run every year by itself: Each machine comes with an initial price tag of $168,000 (about the price of a Porsche 911 Turbo) and the fleet costs tens of thousands in annual maintenance. Chicago’s program, for example, costs $8.5 million annually. But strictly speaking, the ticket revenue doesn’t actually pay for the street sweeping program — they’re different pots.

And do the street sweepers always show up, actually? Or am I frantically looking for a new spot the night before for nothing?

Not so much in Philadelphia! It’s the only major city without an actual street-sweeping plan. Since the early 2000s, when budgets were slashed, Philly has been without any semblance of a regular program. Basically, they sweep when they can, but here’s the rub: They still do ticket cars for it. So even though residents may not have seen a street sweeper on their street in weeks or years, they still have to move as if it’s coming, or else get ticketed.

Anecdotal evidence, too, exists in pretty much every city, probably even your own street, of street cleaners just not coming when they’re supposed to. And while paying any ticket sucks, especially to move out of the way of a truck that may or may not arrive, just remember that when they do arrive, the amount they clean, and its knock-on effects, are a lot more significant than most people tend to realize.