Editorial: Street sweeping – less is more

The City’s long-neglected battle against trash has been much in the news lately, with a controversial proposal by Mayor Gavin Newsom to require universal three-bin recycling and composting, and also with a good report card for reduced street littering. Our lessened litter count apparently is partially due to the mayor’s counterintuitive but successful less-is-more experiment in removing about 400 of The City’s approximately 5,000 sidewalk trash cans last year.

Newsom proved to be right in gambling that business owners and residents would have stronger motivation to clean up the trash in their own vicinity if they could not depend solely on passers-by disposing of their litter in (or near) the often-overflowing municipal trash cans. Now the less-is-more idea is back on the garbage front lines, this time about street sweeping trucks.

The Department of Public Works just announced it will cut back the weekly visits of mechanical street sweepers to twice a month in many residential neighborhoods by the end of the year. The cutback is expected to save approximately $1 million from the annual $12 million DPW street cleaning budget.

As a welcome side effect for thousands of city car-owners who don’t have off-street parking, their stressful need to find “alternate side” spaces — sometimes shortly after dawn — will be cut in half. Ever since ex-Mayor Dianne Feinstein imposed alternate-side sweeping in 1978, leaving a car overnight on San Francisco streets virtually guarantees the registered owners a de facto city tax of hundreds of dollars yearly.

According to the DPW, a reduction of street sweeping frequency is justified by recent research from the city Controller’s Office and its own staff that shows most primarily residential streets are already quite clean before the weekly curbside sweeping. And a 19-city survey confirmed that only one other city besides San Francisco sweeps its residential streets weekly.

One major unanswered question is how badly the lessened street sweeping will hurt the revenues of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which collects a relatively easy $18 million per year merely by accompanying street sweepers with parking enforcement officers who ticket any cars left at the curb.

So far, MTA officials are putting a brave face on the change. They say the agency has more violation reports than it has personnel to enforce them, and any parking officers not needed for street sweeping ticketing can just be redeployed to write fines for abandoned autos and bus route interference. However, the bottom-line collection changes remain to be seen.

Naturally the twice-monthly sweeping will be controversial with neighborhood activists who see any service reduction as short-changing their constituents. But what is the point of spending The City’s routinely scarce funds on work that may very well not be necessary? If halved sweeps don’t keep the streets clean enough, they can soon enough be restored to weekly.

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