Updated at 5:50 pm 1/6/22
Jersey City’s decision to reduce street sweeping from two days to one day per week is being hailed by some motorists as a welcome respite from parking tickets and the hassle of car moving. However, if the experience of other cities is any guide, the tradeoff may be dirtier streets, clogged sewers, flooding, and water pollution.
In September, the New York Daily News reported that city streets had become noticeably dirtier following Mayor Bill De Blasio’s pandemic-driven decision to cut the city’s alternate side parking rules and street sweeping, requiring drivers to move their cars only once a week instead of twice.
“Our streets are much less clean now,” Howard Yaruss, transportation chair of Community Board 7 on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, told the News.
The problem of dirty streets and stopped-up sewers initially leaped to the fore during Hurricane Ida, when 153,000 New York City catch basins became clogged. In some instances, according to the News, residents were forced to clean catch basins themselves to prevent flooding.
In Bushwick, a mutual aid group took it upon themselves in the wake of Ida flooding to clean trash filled drains. The website Curbed noted the fifty percent decrease in street sweeping as a contributor to the Bushwick mess.
Here in Jersey City, a manager overseeing the upgrading of sewer pipes under Wayne Street yesterday morning said, “People don’t realize that if the streets aren’t swept, the trash ends up clogging sewer pipes or in the ocean.”
Like many older cities, Jersey City has a combined sewer system that manages both wastewater and stormwater runoff. When debris and litter enter storm drains, they can cause sewer main backups.
Some cities, like Camden and Seattle, have increased street sweeping to mitigate the pollution problem. In 2015, Seattle increased street sweeping in an effort to reduce stormwater runoff pollution. “We have been able to show definitively that street sweeping is one of the most cost-effective measures we can use to protect our waterways” the program manager, Shelly Basketfield, told the Seattle Times.
Some Jersey City residents are expressing concerns about trash-strewn streets. Said Kevin Link in response to the news that street sweeping would be reduced, “I think reducing street sweeping to once a week per side will reduce parking turnover and actually reduce the amount of available parking. People will drive less and park more resulting in less parking and dirty streets and sidewalks.”
Upon learning about the new street sweeping schedule, Lea B. said, “Ugh, dirtier streets: just what we need.”
Steve Krinsky of the Hudson County Sierra Club considers trash just one component of the problem. “Street cleaning is not just an aesthetic issue, it’s an environment issue. Will Jersey City be paying closer attention to keeping storm drains clear? I hope so. It is common, especially during the fall, that they are clogged with trash and leaves, and rainwater cannot drain as it should. Jersey City needs to fix the CSO [Combined Sewer Overflow] problem. Trash in the storm drains is bad enough; sewage in our rivers is worse.”
According to Debra Italiano, president of Sustainable JC, the city was onto something when it created the “Adopt a Catch Basin” program. “It was a great idea but isn’t being sold to the public very well. So, that’s an opportunity. Street cleaning does not correct the buildup of debris into catch basins, and it’s exacerbated when street cleaning is reduced. If the street cleaning is being reduced, then someone needs to attend to the clogged, debris-laden catch basins.”
The threat to health posed by sewer system backups caused by a combination of climate change and human refuse was illustrated by Samantha Bee in a YouTube video.
Asked if there was a plan to deal with the potential issues, Ward E Councilman James Solomon said “As far as I know, there is no formal plan, however, the staggered implementation is in part to observe the changes in street trash, etc. to see its magnitude and work on a response.”
Mayor Fulop’s spokesperson, City Council President Joyce Watterman, Councilman-at-large Daniel Rivera and Councilwoman-at-large Amy DeGise did not respond to our emails requesting comment.