A WNYC docudrama from 1950, produced as a bit of agitprop for the Department of Sanitation, tells the story of Joe Henrichs, a fictional Brooklyn everyman whose son slips on a banana peel while playing outside and gets hit by a truck. (He survives.) Henrichs, in denial about the problem of street litter, is sent by his wife to inspect the state of their block. “You don’t even believe Phil slipped on a banana peel,” she scolds him. “You probably think our streets are too clean for that kind of thing.” Once outside, Henrichs discovers yellowed newspapers, oil-soaked rags, rotting apple cores, and splintered chunks of wood. He begins to furiously kick each new pile — “Cans, cans, and more cans!” — before going to the Department of Sanitation looking for answers. There, he meets real-life Sanitation commissioner Andrew Mulrain, who says that there’s a simple explanation for the mess: There are too many cars parked on the street. But a new program launched that year, with an assist from the singular power of the mechanical broom, might change that: “I think this ‘parking on one side of the street’ innovation is the most helpful idea in my 30 years with the department,” Mulrain says, announcing the birth of alternate-side parking in New York City. Henrichs, practically beaming about his civic responsibilities around waste, leaves the experience transformed — a sanitation evangelist. “If just everybody — you, me, everybody — is a bit more careful,” he says, “you’ll be surprised how we’ll all feel better.”
Everyone did not feel better. Alternate-side parking, or ASP, as the policy is known, was first introduced on August 1, 1950, in a 90-block section of the Lower East Side. Over the next decade, this dance between cars and Sanitation trucks slowly expanded to the rest of the city, finally reaching Riverdale in 1962. The backlash among car owners was almost immediate, and their complaints haven’t changed much in the last 70 years. In 1953, a letter from the Automobile Club of New York to the Traffic Authority said ASP added “unnecessary burdens to the problems of motorists” and called for a reduction in sweeping hours. In 2022, after Sanitation commissioner Jessica Tisch restored the full policy with a plea set to a Sarah McLachlan soundtrack, an Astoria resident told the New York Post that moving her car twice a week was ruining life in the city, which had become “very inhospitable and challenging.” (This Astoria resident, it should be noted, has a garage.)
The current ASP regime, for a majority of the city’s residential areas, requires a twice-weekly, 90-minute parking shuffle, a considerable decrease from the Mulrain era of five hours a day, three days a week. Even with reduced hours, the city’s approach to ASP is something of a national outlier. Most cities in the U.S. only sweep streets twice a month, and some are keeping their reduced street-sweeping frequencies established during the pandemic in place, making New York essentially the only major city to pin the general cleanliness of a given block to the cooperation of car owners. And that cooperation isn’t a given. (Sanitation recently released a video showing the sheer volume of parked cars on the street on ASP days — watching the sweeper try to route around the double-parked vehicles almost physically hurts.) So if compliance is a mess, and so many people seem to hate it, is relying on drivers to do the right thing, when the city does very little to convince them to do otherwise, really the best way to keep streets clean?
Hot Garbage Month
The Sanitation Department has grown quite a bit since Mulrain’s day: 7,500 uniformed employees now move 428 mechanical brooms across 59 districts. Supervisors monitor what blocks are not able to be sufficiently swept, but that data is kept internal, says Vincent Gragnani, press secretary for the Sanitation Department. There are, however, scorecards that track sidewalk and street cleanliness by community board. In Manhattan’s CB 1, the area encompassing lower Manhattan, the streets are consistently considered 100 percent “acceptably clean.” But it also includes Battery Park City, which has its own trash-collection program managed by a state authority, and the Alliance for Downtown New York Business Improvement District, which deploys its own litter-management teams. Being part of a BID, where local business owners make financial contributions to supplement existing maintenance efforts that continued during the pandemic even when city-managed cleaning schedules were reduced, seems to make a major difference for street cleanliness. On residential blocks outside of BIDs, the blame for dirty streets often rests with property owners. Landlords are required to “clean and sweep the sidewalk and gutters next to their properties and the area extending 18 inches into the street from the curb,” according to city law. And the trash from their buildings, when taken out, should, hypothetically, be containerized. When that doesn’t happen, we get spillage: a feast for rats and a tumbleweed-like scattering of refuse. New Yorkers tend to know what that looks like.
Trash is only part of the problem, though. In the early days of ASP, cars left at the curb were often towed, without any warning, to an impound lot. Car owners had to pay a $15 ticket in addition to a $10 fee to release their vehicle. Adjusted for inflation, that would be about $300 in 2022 dollars plus the inconvenience of retrieving your car. Enforcement has, in many ways, softened over the decades. Ticketing is still used to incentivize compliance, but many car owners who can afford to just choose to absorb the cost. New York City Councilmember Erik Bottcher noted earlier this year that some car owners “never move their car” because paying $65 each week, a total of $260 per month, is “far cheaper than a monthly garage,” which can range from $700 to $1,200 in his district. (Experienced New York City street parkers know if you pay the fine right away, you’re not really at risk for getting booted or towed, which is handled through NYPD.) The city abandoned its wonderfully garish neon-yellow stickers — pasted on the windows of offending vehicles, nearly impossible to remove — in 2012 after an unanimous vote from the City Council. As the New York Times reported at the time, the councilmembers argued, in part, that the stickers were a violation of due process. The stickers — which cheerfully read, “A cleaner New York is up to you!” — left drivers “visibly being declared guilty before being given a chance to prove one’s innocence.” John Nucatola, then-director of the Sanitation Department’s bureau of cleaning and collection, argued before the council’s Transportation Committee that shame — and sticky inconvenience — had been motivating for drivers in terms of compliance. The council moved to repeal the policy anyway. (“It’s not reasonable behavior in the 21st century,” one member said.)
The costs of ignoring ASP are too low, which is only reinforced by the fact that all New York City street parking is cheap. “The irony of ASP is the reason New Yorkers get mad about it is because they don’t use their cars that much,” says Henry Grabar, the author of the forthcoming book Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains the World who consulted on the epic parking episode of How To with John Wilson. Twice-weekly sweeping may only ever be so effective — which is to say, not very — without other policies that discourage people from using the city’s streets as their personal parking structures. As long as street parking costs nothing, that is where most people will store their cars. “The curb really does function as a free garage,” says Grabar. “This is the most valuable land on the entire planet, but we give it away for free, provided that people use it for just this one thing.”
In Tokyo, which generally does not allow drivers to park personal vehicles on the street overnight, a car purchase must come with proof that the driver has an off-street garage space in which to store it. In Portland, Oregon, a program allows residents of high-density neighborhoods to “cash out” if they don’t park a car on city streets, receiving a transit or bike-share pass instead. No such policy exists in New York. At least not anymore. Before 1950, it was illegal to store a car on the street overnight. It was seen as not only a cleanliness issue but also a safety concern; law enforcement at the time believed overnight parking promoted loitering and caused crime. It was also seen as fiscally detrimental: The Board of Trade, a merchant association, fought against on-street parking at the time because businesses said all the extra cars created traffic, which meant the businesses missed out on sales. And that’s been proven, decades later, where some neighborhoods are made unlivable during rush hour by the economic and environmental impact of drivers endlessly circling for parking. (Oddly, businesses in the city use the opposite arguments today, insisting that to lose parking would mean losing customers.)
So there’s the problem of how we manage our trash, and then there’s the problem of where we store cars, but what about the mechanical broom that Mulrain promised would transform life as we knew it? Some large cities, far cleaner than New York, don’t even use them. Famously immaculate Hong Kong pays thousands of people to keep the city clean, scouring the city on foot, a result of new health and safety requirements after the SARS epidemic. Big machines are still used on major thoroughfares like highways, and some miniature sweepers have been deployed in certain neighborhoods, but the bulk of the work of keeping streets clean is done by hand. In Paris, there are also trucks for some trash tasks, but the curbs are maintained by a crew of municipal workers with pushcarts and neon-green brooms — one seriously dedicated garbage collector went viral on TikTok last year — who use a network of sidewalk spigots to flush the gutters daily, nudging the litter along like boats in a river, past the wheels of parked cars. Here, it’s the opposite. Only a “handful” of rotating workers in each of New York City’s districts are dedicated to cleaning up street litter on foot, what’s called motorized litter patrol service, according to Gragnani. Elected officials can opt to boost funding for more: A total of 33 councilmembers have allocated discretionary money for additional motorized litter-patrol service, including installing more litter baskets or surveillance cameras. Kamillah Hanks, who represents the northern end of Staten Island, has put in an extra $240,000 for motorized litter-patrol service and extra mechanical-broom service. Justin Brannan, representing Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights, added $200,000 for motorized litter-patrol service, extra mechanical-broom service, and more litter-basket service. The community boards of these districts both scored very well last month on the city’s “acceptably clean” streets index.
Joe Henrichs left his fateful meeting with Andrew Mulrain convinced that city residents doing their part would solve the crisis of street trash. But what the city does generally matters a lot more. Cleaning up after yourself only works when you’re backed by a system that supports your civic endeavors. If the city’s leaders were serious about ending the street-trash crisis, they would invest in more municipal workers to help sweep it up the old-fashioned way — with all due respect to the mechanical broom — or level harsher penalties against property owners who don’t properly maintain their curbs and gutters, or make ASP noncompliance more expensive (or gooey and annoying) for car owners. They could even start building infrastructure that enables New Yorkers to keep cars off the streets for good rather than just shuffling them around twice a week. Then, maybe, we actually will all feel better.