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CASE CLOSED: 311 Is A Joke — Sanitation Department Edition

2:54 PM EST on February 25, 2021

Winter, spring, summer or fall/What will happen if you call?

The case is closed — but the junked bike remains.

An abandoned bike frame that has been on Eagle Street in Greenpoint for more than a year — the same one featured in a recent Streetsblog story about derelict bikes and the same one we reported to the Sanitation Department on Feb. 16 — is still locked to a city bike rack even though the case has been logged on 311 as "closed" with the resolution, "The Department of Sanitation has investigated the complaint and addressed the issue."

Addressed? Who are you going to believe — the DSNY or your own lying eyes:

Still there on Thursday, Feb. 25. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman
Still there on Thursday, Feb. 25. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman

Let's go over the facts in the case:

    • orcutt 1On July 1, 2019, legendary Bike New York advocacy director and former DOT official Jon Orcutt noticed that a bike rack — with an abandoned bike still attached to it — had been knocked off the sidewalk (presumably by a truck) on Eagle Street near Manhattan Avenue (photo, right). At the time, Orcutt propped it up against the building wall so it would be out of the way of pedestrians.
    • He notified the Department of Transportation (because bike racks and sidewalks fall under the jurisdiction of that agency).
    • The agency responded about six days later — but not how Orcutt had hoped. Instead of removing the derelict bike — now just a frame with no cables or wheels and a disattached chain — the agency reinstalled the bike rack ... with the abandoned bike still attached to it! (Photo below.)
orcutt 2
    • Orcutt sent us a picture on Feb. 16, 2021, to show us that the derelict bike was still there, now more than 17 months later (photo below):
The bike is still there! Photo: Jon Orcutt
The bike is still there! Photo: Jon Orcutt
    • So on Tuesday, Feb. 16, I reported the derelict bike at 151 Eagle Street to 311. (If you search 311, it is complaint 49808901).
    • On Wednesday, Feb. 17, at noon, the case was marked closed in 311. The resolution description reads, "The Department of Sanitation has investigated the complaint and addressed the issue. If the problem persists, call 311 to enter a new complaint…” This was not accurate at the time and remains inaccurate as of Thursday afternoon, Feb. 25.
A Sanitation bike removal form.
A Sanitation bike removal form.
    • A few hours after the case was closed on Wednesday, Feb. 17, I got a call from a very polite Sanitation officer, who told me he had tagged the bike for removal (thus confirming that DSNY had actually “investigated the complaint”). I was so excited that I called Orcutt, who reported that, indeed, the bike frame now sported a fluorescent tag that said the bike would be removed in seven days — not seven business days, but seven days — if the owner did not do so first. (The note was back-dated Feb. 9, which only makes this story more bizarre).
    • I visited the bike on Thursday, Feb. 25, more than seven full days since I got the call from the Sanitation officer, and more than 15 full days since the note was dated (Feb. 9). It was still there.

Orcutt was not surprised.

“I was excited to see the tag appear! It’s the first I’ve ever seen in New York," he said. "But with a system so prejudiced against action, it’s not all that surprising the bike is still there.”

It's obviously not the first time a 311 user thought he or she had gotten action only to find out that the system is broken. Streetsblog proved that most convincingly with our minute-by-minute account of a 311 call against an illegally parked placard-bearing truck across the street from a station house in Queens.

And last year, we did a definitive story about how it took nine 311 reports to get an abandoned vehicle removed (which was funny because the Department of Transportation even had to paint a bike lane around it).

Still, I called DSNY spokesman Joshua Goodman to ask why Sanitation would "close" a case — and label it as "addressed" — when, in fact, the case remained open.

He made many legitimate excuses — for example, Feb. 24 was the first day this month that no Sanitation workers were dealing with snow and could get back to collecting garbage full-time, and that the fluorescent  note only means that the DSNY may remove the bike after seven days, not that it will remove the bike — but could not ultimately answer why a DSNY employee would mark the case as "closed" and "addressed" if it was, in fact, open and not addressed.

The best information he could provide was that the interface that Sanitation workers use to access the 311 back end — which is outdated software unique to the agency — is "not extremely intuitive — especially for addressing complaints that are in this kind of interim stage."

"It doesn’t have drop-down menus [so] the personnel in the field have to remember the number of the code for the action they took and enter it manually," he said.

Yes, that must be frustrating and it certainly leads to the public getting bad information — such as that a derelict bike was removed when, in fact, it was not.

This is no small matter; when Streetsblog did its story last week about derelict bikes, we found that nearly 10 percent of all derelict bike complaints to 311 ended up being logged the same way as the Eagle Street frame — "investigated" and "addressed." How many of those 855 bikes ended up being removed? There's actually no way to know.

And that's not a good look, 311.

Gersh Kuntzman is editor of Streetsblog. His prior Cycle of Rage columns are archived here.

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