Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Signs warn on street cleaning, among other things, on Broadway in 2018. (Photo: City of Cambridge)

Cars in the way of crews on street-cleaning days in Cambridge this spring will now be ticketed $50 instead of being towed immediately. The City Council asked for a plan in December and accepted one Monday from staff.

Street cleaning, which runs from April through December, occurs once a month on each street in Cambridge, weather permitting. Until this year, cars had to be moved off the side of the street being swept or risk being towed.

The measure follows years of complaints by residents about towing on street-cleaning days and how it can disproportionately pain families experiencing economic hardship, who are suddenly without their vehicles after a tow and must also pay to get them back. The pilot was researched and presented by the Department of Public Works.

“I mean, I love a good pilot. It sounds like this one is well researched and well thought out,” vice mayor Alanna Mallon said. “I did live in Charlestown for seven years. We did not tow, and the streets got clean. Nobody likes getting a $50 ticket, either.”

Councillors Paul Toner and Dennis Carlone were not convinced.

Councillor concerns

Toner was especially skeptical about how clean streets would get if residents don’t move their vehicles without the threat of towing. “We’re in a battle with rats. The dirt in the streets and curbs have to do with the rat population,” Toner said. Another reason street cleaning was important: “We do this is to prevent backup and flooding in our sewers and water system.”

Increased costs also concerned Toner. Additional cleaning around vehicles and in shoulders with leaf blowers or other tools could increase the $500,000 street cleaning budget by 10 percent to 20 percent – roughly $50,000 to $100,000, said Kathy Watkins, commissioner of Public Works. Cities such as neighboring Somerville sweep each side of a street twice a month, essentially cleaning a street four times a month. If Cambridge had to change to such a schedule to keep current levels of cleanliness, that could raise the budget by up to as much as an additional $500,000.

“The big challenges are really early in the season and late in the season, when you have a particularly large volume of leaves. We identified that as needing additional mechanical needs,” Watkins said.

Carlone expressed concern about using additional equipment such as electric leaf blowers to clean around unmoved vehicles and the noise they create. The effectiveness of electric leaf blowers – chosen for their lower environmental impact and noise impact – wasn’t yet known, Watkins said.

Finally, toner said he was concerned about impact on the local towing industry.

“We got at least one email from one of the tow companies saying that if they’re not going to have a towing program here in Cambridge, that’s probably going to put them out of business, or at least out of business in Cambridge,” he said. “One of the complaints is about having to get your car at the tow yard – well, I’d rather get my car at the tow yard in Cambridge than in the future have to go to Everett, Malden or Revere because there’s no tow companies left in Cambridge. We’re impacting local businesses. We’re impacting the workers for those local businesses.”

Less towing, fewer turns on red

Councilor Quinton Zondervan pointed out that towing contracts for the city expire in August, regardless of the street cleaning pilot, and will need to be renegotiated.

Towing contracts of about $700,000 are used for more than cars blocking street cleaners, Watkins said, including in snow emergencies or if people have a bad crash on a city street.  “We would rebuild the contracts regardless of what happens with street cleaning,” Watkins said. A 10 percent fee on each tow comes back to the city, and Watkins said that companies under contract don’t get a guaranteed minimum number of tows.

In the end, Toner and Carlone, along with councillor Marc McGovern, were unconvinced and voted against the pilot. Councillor E. Denise Simmons voted present.

Mallon, Zondervan, Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui and councillor Patty Nolan voted “yes.”

“I am really thrilled the city is willing to try a new approach,” Nolan said. “It is really a sign of us being willing and showing that we want to learn from other cities’ innovative programs. I also recognize this could be challenging. Some residents [worry] streets wouldn’t be cleaned. I recognize that city staff and we don’t know.”

A midseason assessment of the pilot should be done, Nolan said.

Council also discussed how best to warn people of the change and of impending street cleanings. The schedule is posted online, and notifications are available; 15,000 people are signed up for automated street-sweeping alerts.

“I love getting them,” Nolan said. “I signed up. Everybody should be signed up.”

Although the council couldn’t agree on support for the street-cleaning program, a program to raise the number of no-turn-on-red intersections – an estimated 80 percent already have such signs posted – was welcomed unanimously Monday.

This post was updated Dec. 8, 2023, to correct that the city’s test did not tow cars in the way of street cleaning.