Sometimes, the most heroic of politicians get fooled by proposals that sound like they’ll save the world but turn out to be terrible policy. The political organizers-in-training running mock superhero campaigns for DC Mayor fell into this trap, as many of them hastily jumped on a proposal from Adam Green Goblin to eliminate street cleaning tickets in DC.
The noble Adam Green was transformed by a chemical serum, adrenaline, when DPW “courtesy towed” his car around the corner to make room for snow removal. The new space had a different street cleaning day than the place he’d parked, leading Adam to get a street cleaning ticket. DPW also couldn’t tell Adam where they’d put the car.
From that day forward, Adam Green Goblin began roaming the city trying to stamp out street sweeping tickets. He created a Facebook group arguing that the tickets are just a revenue generator for DC. He also added that Georgetown has no street cleaning (nor does Ward 3), making the tickets an unfair burden on residents of other neighborhoods.
It is indeed unfair for some neighborhoods to have sweeping and not others, but the solution isn’t to stop cleaning the streets. Residents of the areas with street sweeping originally petitioned DC to start it, due to high volumes of trash and chemicals on their streets. Residents would certainly not like the way their neighborhoods looked if DC stopped cleaning. And when we don’t take debris off the streets, it washes into storm drains and rivers, or blows into trees and parks. On my street, after DPW does not clean the streets for the winter, the gutters are full of tree material and some trash, and many streets nearer businesses accumulate a lot more trash.
The new street sweeper cameras, which have enraged some drivers, are also making a difference to DC’s trash and pollution. According to testimony from DPW head William Howland at a January 2008 hearing, cars parked illegally during sweeping hours significantly impede DPW’s ability to get trash off the streets. Each car forces the sweeper to go around, making it miss three parking spaces worth of gutter. Cleaning vehicles collect 10 pounds of oil and grease per mile swept, and 3 pounds each of nitrogen and phosphorus.
Without these facts, Adam Green Goblin’s campaign instead made sweeping sound like a nefarious attempt to squeeze revenue from suffering drivers. The campaign corrupted the Green Lantern, who created a petition for neighborhoods to request an end to street cleaning. This came despite his strong advocacy for green jobs and green roofs. Batwoman also endorsed the campaign, as did Batgirl, despite her major policy plank of “cleaning up our streets,” which she must mean only in the crimefighting way. The Atom came out against street cleaning tickets, while advocating for cleaning up the Anacostia and Potomac rivers and city parks, “crack[ing] down on illegal dumping” and prosecuting polluters. Wonder Woman talked about the issue, too, but confined her comments to the unfairness between Georgetown and other neighborhoods, rather than attacking street sweeping itself.
Of course, the DC government could definitely make the street sweeping system more user-friendly. For example, right now each neighborhood generally uses the same two cleaning days for every street, like Monday on one side and Tuesday on the other side. Drivers often have to drive to an adjacent neighborhood to find a usable space. DPW could reorganize the routes to stretch across most of the District on each day, sweeping one street across neighborhoods Monday, a different street Tuesday, and so on.
DC could allow drivers to register their cell phone numbers or email addresses to receive a text message or email if they’re ever ticketed or towed, to avoid someone getting multiple tickets within a few hours of each other or tickets after a courtesy tow. And they should absolutely make sure they don’t lose track of cars entirely due to bureaucratic mistakes.
It’s true that we ought not to see ticketing drivers as a nice way to raise revenue. The ticketing system’s goal, first and foremost, must be to promote the right behavior, like not parking in rush hour restricted areas or blocking street sweepers. But ending street cleaning and coping with trash-strewn, chemical-coated streets isn’t the answer.
What about Georgetown? Why don’t they have street cleaning? So far, I’ve asked many people, and gotten numerous as-yet-unconfirmed answers. Some have said that the streets are too narrow for sweeping vehicles, or that Georgetowners just didn’t want to have to give up parking on one side of the street some days. All neighborhoods with street sweeping did originally opt in. Maybe the BID spends its own money to keep the neighborhood clean, or neighbors do the work themselves. At one point, the Citizens’ Association of Georgetown recommended instituting street sweeping.
One source said that DPW does some manual sweeping. If they do, and if it costs DPW more to keep Georgetown clean than other neighborhoods, that’s unfair. Someone else told me that they heard that as part of DC’s water quality settlement with the EPA, DC will be expanding street sweeping to all neighborhoods. Either way, I’ll keep investigating to get real answers. Adam is right to ask questions about the apparent inequal treatment of Georgetown and nearby neighborhoods, but wrong to recommend that we eliminate cleaning entirely, or tickets for those who don’t move their cars.
I call on Matt Yglesias, Ezra Klein, and the environment-loving members of the Facebook group to rescind their support for the Green Lantern and Adam Green Goblin’s plan. Instead, they should cast their votes for Wonder Woman (my recommendation), Cyborg, Superman or Spider-Man, the candidates who weren’t corrupted by Adam Green Goblin’s populist-sounding but dangerous proposal. If these Mayoral candidates were serious about fixing this inequity, they’d instead push for reasonable street sweeping reforms and investigate the real reasons Georgetown has no street cleaning. Since they’re actually just fictional superheroes with campaigns run by national community organizers in town for a boot camp, Greater Greater Washington will investigate and push on this issue instead.