POST-MORTEM: Sanitation Commish Admits Poor Snow Cleanup for Cyclists as Agency Lacks Basic Equipment
5:00 PM EST on December 21, 2020
Out-manned, out-numbered, out-planned.
The top city official in charge of keeping roadways clear of snow for drivers and cyclists admitted Monday that the agency did not do a good enough job for bike riders after Wednesday night's storm — the result of having an outdated and outmoded fleet that has failed to keep up with the city's bike lane boom.
Acting Sanitation Commissioner Edward Grayson received high praise on Saturday in the New York Times for his COVID-strapped agency's response to the six- to 10-inch snowfall — but even as The Paper of Record was anointing a new star in the bureaucratic firmament, cyclists were still finding routes completely blocked into Monday. In an interview with Streetsblog, Grayson apologized and promised to do better — though when, he couldn't say.
"We will get there," said the lifetime Sanitation Department employee, who took over the top job with the resignation of Kathryn Garcia earlier this year. "To be able to give a really good bicyclist experience in the first 12 or 24 hours of a storm will take a hell of a lot. I'm not saying it can't be done, but it would take all kinds of resource allocation. I am ill-equipped to do it in real time."
The problem stems from a lack of equipment. Since 2015, the de Blasio administration has been on a bike-lane-constrution spree, ultimately adding more than 100 miles to the city's cycling infrastructure. But also since that time, the Department of Sanitation has bought zero — zero as in Vision Zero — narrow snow removal machines designed for bike lanes. It's been discussed, Grayson said, but not done. (Such equipment obviously exists.) The city does have a fleet of Haulster plows, but they are roughly eight-and-a-half-feet wide, which is too wide for many bike lanes.
"The pandemic crushed the city budget," Grayson said. "It's not that we don't care. I want your readers to know that some of those smaller tractor units would be helpful. We just got decimated on what we are buying. I can imagine what it's like to have a good stretch of bike lane and then you hit a wall of snow and take your life into your hands as you move into traffic, but I don't have an immediate solution."
The agency tweeted out pictures of one of its existing narrow machines — but when Streetsblog asked about the machine, we learned the cold reality: The agency has about 102 of those machines; 50 were bought for the 2014-2015 winter. The rest are older than that, an agency spokesman confirmed. Reached on Monday, Grayson said he needs newer "boutique" machines — his term for equipment that simply can't be bought off-the-rack — to do the job faster than his crews did them this time, with cyclists still waiting for relief from a storm that is already a distant memory for city drivers.
"If I had more boutique pieces, I could have done better by Day Two [Thursday] or Day Three [Friday]," he told Streetsblog. "I do feel bad. I wish I could do more for the bikers than we did. I respect the men and women of my department. They broke their ass. They are out there even now chopping snow.
"I want to do better now and next winter," he added. "And the reason I'm talking to you is that we don't have a 'no comment.' We do have a comment. The comment is I want to do better. But I don't have a silver bullet. We give a shit. We do. And we will get in a better place."
But all of Grayson's talk about doing better obscures one central fact: it is DSNY policy to service car lanes first and bike lanes and pedestrian areas last. According to the agency's own snow removal plan:
Plowing operations continue until all public streets are serviced. … After salting and plowing operations have stopped, DSNY addresses snow and ice removal from bike lanes, pedestrian overpasses and step streets, bus stops and crosswalks.
(A Sanitation spokesman later said that the above statement is only a guideline to protect worker safety; conditions on the ground sometimes allow for DSNY to clear bike lanes and pedestrian areas sooner. "We would only wait until salting and plowing had stopped if there was some safety reason," said the spokesman, Joshua Goodman.)
The Department of Transportation — which designs and installs the bike lanes that have given Grayson's workers such headaches — did not respond to repeated requests for information for this story. The agency had tweeted out a picture on Thursday morning of Acting Commissioner Margaret Forgione thanking its agency workers for clearing a bike path near the Queensboro Bridge, but did not respond to questions about why a long stretch of the same bike path that wasn't in the picture was not cleaned until Saturday. It also did not respond to a question about the Northern Boulevard bike lane, whose flexipost protection was entirely demolished by Sanitation cleaning crews. (The agency responded after initial publication of this story. Its response is in full at the bottom.)
There are many examples of cyclists and bus riders responding harshly to the efforts of the departments of Transportation and Sanitation:
- On Saturday, the Willis Avenue bridge had still not been cleared.
- The Fourth Avenue protected bike lane in Brooklyn was still a mess.
- Skillman Avenue in Queens was obviously wide enough for someone to drive through, yet was still not cleaned into Saturday. Streetsblog reader Alan Baglia posted numerous pictures and even coined the hashtag, #BuildTheLaneMaintainTheLane.
- Streetsblog (in an epic thread), Gothamist and the Post was still seeing snow-filled lanes on Sunday, too.
- Many many bus stops and sidewalk crossings were not cleared into Monday, with 311 telling complainants that the delay is two-fold: work is done by hand by temporary employees and is therefore slow, but also that the DSNY does not even start doing that work for 72 hours after a storm. ("Seventy-two hours!" exclaimed pedestrian advocate Christine Berthet. "Cars have the priority and the city just hopes the snow will melt. If this news came from Russia, everyone would be laughing at them.")
- Part of Flushing Avenue was not cleared even into Monday:
That news really frustrated operators of the Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway — whose ridership is soaring during the pandemic.
"Our data show that it's not the cold temperatures that keep people from biking, it's inaccessible infrastructure," said Terri Carta of the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative. "If we build infrastructure, like we do for cars, the road for bikes and the roads for pedestrians, meaning bike lanes and sidewalks, have to be cleared. But instead, there are a lot of New Yorkers who are just out of luck now."
One example of inter-agency failure stands out: On Sunday morning — roughly 84 hours after the storm hit — a Streetsblog reporter watched as one of the DSNY narrow Gehl machines tried to make it up Ninth Street between Sixth and Seventh avenues (see photo below).
Grayson said such equipment is not ideal for such work, but it's the best he has. In this case, the machine could not continue up the block because of an illegally parked car.
"Our biggest challenge is the parking protected lanes, which depends on the behavior of the driver," he said. "When the parked car is the protection, it's an honor system. Mrs. McGillicudy might have just parked her car in 40 mph winds, so she doesn't know she's blocking Sanitation equipment."
A city official who asked not to be named because this person has to work with DSNY blamed the agency.
"It’s important to message this as a DSNY problem," the source said. "Simple: They need to get smaller sweepers. They are in charge of roadway maintenance. And when they don't maintain the bike lanes, it really handcuffs DOT to do more."
And not every error in the Sanitation response was the unforced kind. Before the interview, Streetsblog had sent Grayson a video taken on Monday morning of Northern Boulevard's protected bike lane — which was just installed earlier this year at great political and fiscal cost to DOT — only to be destroyed in the first winter storm.
"I hate seeing that," he said. "And as the consummate guy from Queens, that caption really drove it home. But I have no excuses. I hate seeing that. That is a very busy stretch and I am worried about cyclists' safety at this moment. I don't like seeing that. I am sorry."
Cycling advocates said whatever problems that the DSNY had this year are rooted in more than a decade of poor communication among the various agencies and, more important, a culture that still — seven years into Vision Zero and 12 years after the first truly protected bike lanes started popping up — puts the needs of car drivers ahead of everyone else.
"The city is still not set up right," said Jon Orcutt, a former DOT official now with Bike New York, the advocacy group. "The slow snow response is not surprising. It happens every time. And that's because the city is OK at planning and putting in bike lanes, but it is not so good at maintaining them. Plowing is an age-old problem, but it's growing in magnitude as the city puts in more protected bike lanes.
"We need to see the city's fleet come around now that we have different streets," Orcutt added. "Different streets mean we need different operations from DSNY, the cops, the fire department, which still has these massive trucks that the DOT then has to design around. No one upstairs at City Hall is grappling with this." (A City Hall spokesperson didn't fully disagreed, but pointed out that the city is indeed facing an epic budget crisis. But the spokesperson also cited the most pressing post-storm imperative: to clear roads first, citing the need for emergency vehicles to move around easily.)
Brooklyn City Council candidate Elizabeth Adams (who also works for current Council Member Steve Levin) couldn't believe that the newly constructed West Street protected bike lane had not been plowed for cyclists by Friday morning, so she called DSNY to get it cleaned up. By sundown, the work was done, but her picture of the roadway tells the entire story: the lane for cars was completely clean by Friday morning. The lane for cyclists was not.
"They clearly have a priority," Adams said. "With government, the important thing is when we commit to a planning goal, we need to make sure it's rolled out properly. If our snow plows are too large to do the work, we need bike-lane-sized snow plows."
Brian Hedden, co-founder of Bike South Brooklyn, has been documenting his rides since Thursday — rides that were frequently interrupted by unclear lanes. He said the disconnect is a cultural one.
"Look at the Sanitation Department's own messaging," he said. "At one point, they asked for patience from cyclists and drivers — but cyclists are the only ones who are forced to be patient because their roads aren't clear."
Hedden also pointed out that the city builds some bike lanes on sidewalks — such as near the Caesar's Bay shopping mall and along Flushing Avenue — and relies on building owners, who often only clean the sidewalk, but not the bike lane. Into Monday, Flushing Avenue, a well-used link between north Brooklyn and the Manhattan Bridge, was still covered in snow.
And the Parks Department failed miserably, many cyclists reported. The Hudson River Greenway — a priority strip — was cleared. But the connector through Battery Park was not safe through Saturday. And the 96th Street shared path — famously the only cross-park path other than park roadways — wasn't plowed at all.
"It's going to take a fresh approach," Hedden said. "And you're not going to get that from an acting commissioner who came through the ranks. He would do it if directed to, but, unfortunately, the guy who calls himself the bike mayor is too busy trolling us on twitter about alternate-side-of-the-street parking."
After initial publication of this story, DOT spokesman Scott Gastel sent over the following statement:
DOT has about 30 bike lane miles over four boroughs in its snow clearing jurisdiction that we’ve been addressing. In some cases, DSNY covered areas in our jurisdiction, and likewise we addressed some beyond DOT’s. Crescent Street in Queens is an example of one [as well as] other major lanes in Queens and Brooklyn we’ve cleared. [The agency provided photos from Sunday.] We covered more ground today [Monday], sometimes revisiting sites, and our priority is to continue clearing snow from permanent lanes and we will address the temporary lanes once that work is complete. As far as the Willis Avenue Bridge, I wanted to note that we addressed that bridge on Thursday and have gone back a few times. It appeared substantially cleared except for a small portion on the Bronx side and we were there last night and this morning.
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