Friday, July 12, 2024

Street cleaning this year eliminated towing and added use of crews on foot. (Photo: City of Cambridge)

A popular but flawed test of ticketing instead of towing cars during Cambridge’s street-cleaning season will get a second year, but – with the permission of the state Legislature – adjusted to include higher fines.

City councillors approved language Monday for Beacon Hill asking to double the current cost of a ticket to $100. A repeat offender could wind up being charged a total of $250 in the proposed home-rule petition, and that could incentivize drivers to pay more attention to the need to make way for city sweepers.

Residents like the program and want to keep it (69 percent to 21 percent, according to a city survey), but “an increasing number of vehicles are not moving and that needs to change,” according to a report heard Monday. Tickets issued for street-cleaning parking violations rose by an average of 93 percent during the 2023 test, but “the number of vehicles not moving for street cleaning has more than doubled in the late summer and fall, when debris is heaviest on the streets. This has made maintaining clean streets challenging.”

Since the street-cleaning test was implemented in April, streets have been dirtier, city councillor Paul Toner said.

“I’ve been getting emails with people sending me pictures with their streets covered in leaves,” Toner said.

Proposing hitting reverse

If it was up to him, he said, the city would return to the traditional towing system.

“The thing that really drives me crazy is the solution is to raise the cost of parking tickets when the justification for doing this in the first place was [towing] was supposedly a financial burden on especially lower-income people,” Toner said.

Raising fines in a program designed to save drivers money is less contradictory than it might seem, because the cost of towing is still substantially more expensive, Department of Public Works commissioner Kathleen Watkins said. The traditional approach involves the cost of a ticket, a tow, potentially a day or more of impoundment and the time and expense needed to get a car back from the lot.

The city went into the test knowing fines might have to be eventually increased. “Where can we get to that gets people to move their vehicles without reinstating towing?” Watkins asked.

Councillor E. Denise Simmons voted no to increasing fines and voiced support for an increase in street cleaning instead, going to two days a month instead of one between April and December. The idea was not adopted.

Toner was the other vote against.

Famous announcement

Also discussed at the meeting was how residents are reminded of street cleaning, and whether that needs to be changed. The city has a system in which residents can register their address and sign up for notifications through email or text that sweepers – and ticketers – are coming through.

Some people might not have access to online reminders, and there needs to be more community outreach on street cleaning, Simmons said.

Another way the city alerts residents to street cleaning is a truck that drives around and calls out a recorded warning to move cars out of the way. Since the early 2000s, that famous announcement was the voice of emergency dispatcher Hector Perez – and changing it was another experiment that needed refinement.

“As part of our efforts to be a little less male at DPW, we recorded it with a female voice – and I would say very early on we got a lot of feedback that whatever the tone and the pitch of that voice was, people could not hear it,” Watkins said. “So we re-recorded the message with the original person.”

The year ahead will be another “evolution” for the street-cleaning program, Watkins said.

“I frame it that way in terms of wanting to really increase the tickets and then see how that works, and then continuing on the outreach,” Watkins said.