Saturday, April 18, 2009

How to Clean Up Beacon Hill: Towing is Just a Start

Boston City Councilor Bill Linehan is proposing that Boston do away with towing cars on street cleaning days. It's a bad idea.

Trust me, trash is something I know well. It's the biggest issue for us downtown residents who live on Beacon Hill. Since I joined the Clean Beacon Hill committee, I have been volunteering personal time to trash since 2000. I should put that on a business card or something. Nine years and counting.

Councilor Linehan's proposal is a populist reaction to a policy put in place by Boston's Chief of Public Works, Dennis Royer, two years ago, which called for strict enforcement of posted street sweeping signs-- including towing on street cleaning days. It's not exactly a strict policy, since the street sweeping signs are very clear as to when street sweeping takes place and mark the street as a "tow zone" during that time. Councilor Linehan would like to do away with the towing, and instead simply give out tickets with a higher fine. His constituents will like the idea. Except it won't work.

Towing is a massive inconvenience. The Boston tow lot is not accessible by public transportation. A typical tow victim needs to hire a cab to get to it. Once there, the fines can be high, starting with a 75-dollar ticket and then charges for being in the tow lot. Karen Cord Taylor of the Beacon Hill Times quipped recently that at least there's an ATM machine at the lot now. Quite a novelty.

It's good that towing causes all sorts of pain, since that makes it an effective deterrent. The proof is on the streets. I took a walk on Beacon Hill today, and relatively speaking, it's pretty darn clean. It is clean because the street cleaning program is working better than it has before. And that's because cars are moved on street cleaning days.

Anderson Street at Revere looking North
Beacon Hill, Boston
April 18, 2009

Prior to Chief Royer's strict policy, cars would never move. Despite raising ticket fines several years ago, the charges never worked. Residents figured the fine was like paying for parking (especially since the Boston resident parking sticker doesn't cost anything).

Towing changed all that. Suddenly residents had an easier time remembering to look at the posted street sweeping signs, and remembering what the signs said. With the cars not there, the street sweepers can reach the curb. And when they reach the curb, they work well.

I have said many times that if towing doesn't happen, there's no reason to have the street sweeping program at all. Because it's a complete waste of money.

To be sure, street sweeping is just the first leg in a three-legged-stool solution that is necessary to bring real cleanliness to Beacon Hill. The other legs are: first, enforcement of the "green tickets" that ISD issues to trash scofflaws, and second, switching to two days of trash pick up on Beacon Hill.

I have written about the green ticket issue before. Boston's Inspectional Service Department (ISD) writes green tickets to residents that improperly dispose their trash. Unfortunately, the tickets have no teeth and are not enforced. Boston's Mayor Tom Menino, City Council President Mike Ross and State Representative Marty Walz, among others, would like to pass a state law that allows Boston to connect the green ticket fines to property owner liens; the best scenario would be if the fines show up on individual tax bills. Unfortunately, Governor Patrick wouldn't sign the law when it passed in December. In fact, he didn't do anything with it, and the legislation suffered the ignominious "pocket veto." I am hoping the law is passed again this year and is signed by Governor Patrick.

The second issue is far more emotional, and it's one I have thought about a lot. Beacon Hill has enjoyed three days of trash pick up for some time. It has its advantages, especially if you live in a neighborhood where small is the norm-- or as I put it, everything in my apartment is a "miniature" version of itself.

The problem is three days of trash pick up means crap is on the side of the street for 42 hours a week. That is one fourth of the week. No joke. Trash is on the street curbs roughly one-quarter of every week on tony Beacon Hill. We have tried to address this issue as a community by shortening the amount of time one can place trash on the curb (what's called same-day pick-up). The problem is this really doesn't give much time for residents to put trash out. The Beacon Hill Civic Association, of which I am a board member, supports same-day pick-up, but we are also trying to move the start of trash pick-up on the hill to 9 a.m. in the morning to give residents two more hours.

Removing a day of pick up cuts down the amount of time trash is put at the curb by a third. From 42-28 hours. Wham. Just like that. And an informal survey I am conducting on the hill is showing that most neighbors would be ok with it.

Councilor Linehan, I don't like your populist idea. Street sweeping is working now better than ever before. And with green ticket enforcement and two days of pick up (instead of three), we can all make our streets far cleaner than they have been.

1 comment:

Wade said...

Ross, I agree with you that the streets should be swept, and that the cars should be removed, if residents are careless enough to leave them on the street on sweeping day. What bugs me is that street sweeping day is such a gleeful racket for the towing companies. In my neighborhood in the South End they line up on the targeted streets at 7:30 am, just waiting to pounce on the remaining cars, like wolves on sheep. And given the cost of retrieving your car from the lot (something I had to do once when I was dumb enough to lose track of the street sweeping schedule), it's clear that they make a bundle. I'd like to know how the city hands out the towing contracts.