San Francisco is known for many things. Unfortunately, the deteriorating road conditions are one of them
A stroll down Market Street any morning provides a glimpse into this persistent reality.
A conglomeration of various street cleaning teams, all of which are subordinate to the Department of Public Works, cavort in the corridors of the city center. They can often be distinguished from one another by the color of the clothes they wear.
There’s the Downtown Streets Team, Outreach and Enforcement, Pit Stop, TLClean and Urban Alchemy, among others. Some sweep street corners or flush sidewalks. Others collect rubbish or wipe graffiti off shop windows. There are units devoted to steaming trash cans, cleaning gutters, and manning public toilets, as well as community ambassadors who get in touch with local residents, businesses, or inform people who may have slept nearby that the street cleaning is taking place will start soon.
They work side by side, but not necessarily with one another, limited to clearly defined roles and silos. The result is often a Rubik’s Cube series of blocks – some pristine and clean, others with unkempt junk or personal items tucked away in corners. Come back the next morning and even blocks cleaned the day before are likely dirty.
The sheer number of moving parts creates San Francisco’s reputation for putting red tape before progress, making it difficult for residents to know who to contact with a query or who is responsible if problems persist. One cannot help wondering whether this patchwork approach mitigates the potential collective impact of a simpler alternative.
“We have the resources,” said Rodney Fong, President and CEO of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce. “The problem is how they are managed, the measurement of success, the accountability and the goals. It’s really difficult. “
Two workers from the Downtown Streets team will be cleaning on Tuesday, October 12, 2021 as they walk down Market Street in the mid-market area. (Kevin N. Hume / The Examiner)
The responsibility for street cleaning will eventually be outsourced to the still-to-be-created Department of Streets and Sanitation as a result of proposal B on the vote last year. For now, however, DPW oversees The City’s long list of street cleaning teams. And the agency suggests that individual actors rather than their multi-layered approach to clean-up are responsible for the ongoing problem.
“Bad behavior contributes the most, regardless of whether it is people who illegally dispose of old furniture, building rubble or household waste; Scavengers rummaging through trash cans and throwing what they don’t want on the floor, or garbage bugs casually dropping their coffee cups and fast food packaging on the sidewalk, ”DPW spokeswoman Rachel Gordon said in an email. “Warehouses also produce a lot of waste.”
Street cleaning companies collect more than 3.6 million pounds of trash across the city every month. Much of this is concentrated in the downtown area, where dozens of crew members show up for work before sunrise every day to clear the streets.
According to the Department of Public Works, the agency spends nearly $ 94 million and 350 people cleaning streets annually. Under the umbrella of street cleaning operations, DPW operates at least 15 different crews who contract with non-profit organizations to provide additional staff and local relationships for some. Not-for-profit boroughs add to the mix, partnerships in which landowners pay a fee that funds city-government-backed improvements.
At all of these facilities, workers clean the streets of San Francisco seven days a week, starting in the early hours of the morning and staying outside until late at night. Yet even in downtown, considered in many ways one of the city’s crown jewels, it’s not uncommon for people to come across rubble, graffiti, or human litter while drinking their morning coffee.
The agency stands firm that a kaleidoscope of street cleaning teams performing various functions enables it to reach more corners of the city more effectively. Gordon compares it to a baseball team – each player has a different role in a collective team effort. She said that this setup allows different crews to develop expertise in specific skills, and it makes it easier for The City to partner with a variety of nonprofits that use the street cleaning groups to develop, for example, people who are formerly incarcerated or homeless.
It also means DPW can run a number of programs concurrently, giving some crews city-wide responsibility and allowing others to focus on specific neighborhoods that require more focused efforts. For example, there are regularly scheduled crews who drive to “well-known hot-spot areas” such as Tenderloin, SoMa, Mission, Bayview and Chinatown to remove illegally dumped garbage, manually sweep streets and thoroughly clean alleys.
Others consistently deal with commercial areas. CleanCorridors SF sends crews to a different neighborhood corridor every Thursday to do a “deep cleaning” and to discuss their responsibilities with the business owners to keep the premises clear.
Many teams are now reserved for demand-oriented ad hoc projects, often at the behest of reports from district managers, calls on the 311 hotline, or recommendations from the road teams themselves.
“All the work is coordinated,” said Gordon.
A civic center ambassador is cleaning up graffiti in the United Nations plaza on Tuesday, October 12, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume / The Examiner)
As simple as that explanation is for DPW insiders, the unsettling reality of the streets of San Francisco remains. And local economic recovery may depend on finding a solution to keep the streets clean and safe for everyone.
Even before the pandemic, the Moscone Center – the height of the San Francisco convention industry and whose macroeconomic impact is estimated at $ 4.9 billion a year – lost business. In 2019 alone, 35 future events were canceled, with hosts citing road rot and safety concerns as two of the top three reasons for events to be relocated.
“If we want San Francisco to recover – and I’m not even talking about the high watermark, but to a point where our residents and our businesses feel safe – the cleanliness and safety aspects of San Francisco need to be greatly improved.” “Said Fong.
DPW recognizes that the street cleaning project is still “in progress”. But it puts the burden on the behavior of residents who fail to behave as good stewards of their city. Gordon rejects the narrative that the agency was to blame for the internal disorder or inefficiency.
“In the short term, the goal of our street cleaning efforts is to gradually improve the cleanliness of the city’s public right of way,” she said. “In the long term, the goal is to achieve a meaningful cultural change in which people don’t ravage the streets in the first place, so that public works workers don’t have to work around the clock to clean up the dirt that others have left behind.”