Don’t Let Coronavirus Prevent NYC from Buying Small Snowplows (…Wait, Wut?)

That's a bizarre headline, but it makes sense when you consider what Council Member Ben Kallos is hoping to do on the Upper East Side and, eventually, all of Manhattan!

Council Member Ben Kallos (inset) wants to hear from you before he commits to funding small snow plows to help the Sanitation Department clear bike lanes.
Council Member Ben Kallos (inset) wants to hear from you before he commits to funding small snow plows to help the Sanitation Department clear bike lanes.

If it wasn’t for the damn coronavirus pandemic, the Upper East Side would be well on its way to obtaining the city’s first narrow snowplow to keep protected bike lanes clear during winter.

But residents and cyclists in Council Member Ben Kallos’s district still have a chance to get the much-needed equipment. All they have to do is email the lawmaker or tweet at him.

Allow us to explain what the hell we’re talking about…

ben kallos participatory budgetEarlier this year, Kallos created a ballot of projects he would consider funding under the Council’s participatory budgeting scheme — which allows district residents to tell local representatives how they think a portion of a pol’s discretionary funding should be allocated.

First on Kallos’s list (see list, right)? “Mechanical cleaner and plow for bike lanes.”

Unfortunately (or fortunately, if you don’t think much of participatory budgeting…), the COVID-19 pandemic forced the Council to shut down this year’s reality show, “How Should We Spend a Tiny Portion of Our Extra Cash?”

But Kallos is pushing ahead.

“Tell your readers that if I hear from them and they want me to fund the Multihog for the bike lane, I’ll fund it,” Kallos told Streetsblog, knowing fully well that our readers would be more inclined to support equipment to clear bike lanes than, say, more “NYPD Security Cameras.”

But there’s more to this story than one politician’s attempt to buy a piece of equipment. The Department of Sanitation does not currently have narrow snowplows for bike lanes — and the lack of such equipment complicates the way the Department of Transportation designs said lanes, as Streetsblog reported last year.

Again, let us explain, using the Second Avenue protected bike lane in Kallos’s district as an example:

When Kallos demanded that the DOT close one of the gaps in the bike lane above the 59th Street Bridge, the agency told him that the line of parked cars that would protect cyclists most of the day would have to be used as a travel lane during afternoon rush hours. Kallos asked for bollards or flex-posts to protect cyclists, but the agency said that the lane was too narrow to accommodate wide Sanitation trucks, which are 11 feet wide when carrying a snowplow. At that width, the DSNY truck would destroy the flexposts in no time at all, wasting money and leaving cyclists unprotected anyway.

“So, as a result, the bike lanes don’t really get plowed — forcing cyclists to ride in traffic and pray,” Kallos said. “I’ve been pushing this for the most selfish of reasons: I don’t want anyone in my district to ride in a bike lane with no protection and I don’t want them riding in traffic because the lane isn’t plowed. So DSNY said, ‘Why not buy us a Multihog?’ so I put it on the participatory budget list.”

The Department of Sanitation said it could certainly use new equipment. Spokeswoman Dina Montes told Streetsblog that the agency “has a fleet of small skid-steer loaders (commonly known as Bobcats),” but those vehicles are only used “to clear some high-traffic bus stops and pedestrian infrastructure” and the agency lacks “winter equipment and ice/snow-clearing methods for New York City’s changing streetscape.”

As a result, the Department of Transportation often designs bike lanes wider than they need to be, which can allow unauthorized vehicles to park in “protected” bike lanes. And wider lanes are sometimes more controversial in some communities.

“Of course we would welcome the new equipment,” Montes concluded.

Kallos says he wants to hear from Streetsblog readers, but advocates are already on board, though many wish it could be broader.

“We support Kallos’s initiative as a way to breakthrough Sanitation’s inaction, but it’s not the way to solve the problem citywide,” said Jon Orcutt of Bike New York, which has long rallied for smaller vehicles in the city fleet. Smaller plows and sweepers would give the city flexibility to bring new protected bike lane designs to a greater number of streets, Orcutt added.

Orcutt also recently opined in the Daily News about the Grand Street bike lane, a failure “because DOT is forced to make bike lanes wide enough to accommodate Sanitation’s truck-sized street sweepers.”

“A lane only six or seven feet wide on Grand Street would in fact work great for people on bikes … but Sanitation has never gotten off the dime to buy smaller street sweepers,” Orcutt added.

But Kallos will — and, he said, he’d love to bring the narrower street sweepers to all of Manhattan if he’s elected Borough President in 2021.

“It’s about having a bike network and it’s not going to work if only the Upper East Side gets plowed,” he told Streetsblog. “And if I have to buy one for every neighborhood, so be it.”

Sounds like a campaign that Streetsblog readers can get behind. So get those e-cards and e-letters going.

To write to Ben Kallos, use the email address bkallos@benkallos.com. He is also on Twitter as @benkallos.

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