EXCLUSIVE: Sanitation Commissioner to Cyclists: ‘We Will Do Better This Winter’

Sanitation Commissioner Ed Grayson (left with Deputy Commissioner Rocco DiRico) shows off the agency's new narrow snowplows. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman
Sanitation Commissioner Ed Grayson (left with Deputy Commissioner Rocco DiRico) shows off the agency's new narrow snowplows. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman

Help is on the way — though it’ll be a few days late, as usual.

After a troubling winter that featured bike lanes and pedestrian curb cuts uncleared for days after severe storms, the Sanitation Department now says it is better prepared, thanks to the addition of 30 narrow, nimble snow-removal machines that it lacked during its worst efforts last season.

“It’s going to be better — 100 percent,” Sanitation Commissioner Ed Grayson told Streetsblog during an exclusive reveal of the new Holder C70 and S100 snow plows and brining equipment that were not on hand in any serious numbers until midway through last winter. “It’s gonna be different for the bike riders. Is it gonna be perfect? No, I would never say that, but I can guarantee it will be better.”

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Grayson’s confidence follows last year’s admission that his agency simply could not keep up with the biggest storms because it was outgunned, relying solely on its fleet of large garbage trucks and about 100 smaller “skid steer” vehicles that slowly clear bike lanes. After a particularly intense December snowfall last year, some bike lanes and pedestrian curb cuts were not cleared for days after all roadway lanes had long been rendered blacktop smooth. Streetsblog captured video of agency workers struggling to keep up thanks to slow-moving, ill-suited equipment (and no Multi-hogs!). Grayson was forced to apologize.

“We will get there,” the lifetime Sanitation Department employee, who took over the top job after Kathryn Garcia resigned in late 2020 to run for mayor, said at the time. “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.”

Now, however, he’s equipped. In the off-season, the DSNY leased another two dozen of the multi-purpose Holder machines, bringing the fleet size to 30, and devised a strategy for using them better. That means deploying the $160,000 machines before storms (at least ones that don’t start out as rain and then turn to snow) to pre-treat bike lanes with liquid salt to reduce accumulations. And those same machines will be deployed after the snowstorm to do a better job of clearing away snow.

Nine of the units will be based in Manhattan, another nine will be in Brooklyn, and seven will be in Queens. The Bronx, with its very few bike lanes, will get two, the agency said. Three units will be available as spares.

A DSNY machine tries to clean out a bike lane in Park Slope — four days after the end of this winter's first storm. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman
DSNY’s skid steer machines clean out bike lanes, but super slowly. They’ll be supplemented this year with better equipment. File photo: Gersh Kuntzman

“We know what they can do,” he said. “This year, thanks to the brine tanks [on the Holder machines], pedestrians and bikers are getting a treatment before the first flakes, which is something only a small number of roadways get.”

That said, Grayson’s agency is still following a snow-removal script — a published plan that it is legally mandated to release every year in mid-November — that willfully discriminates against cyclists and pedestrians in favor of drivers. It’s right there in two places: “After streets have been addressed, municipal parking lots, bike lanes, and pedestrian infrastructure are also cleared of snow,” the report states. It reiterates the primacy of car drivers: “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.”

Grayson maintains that he is very comfortable with the agency putting drivers (and bus passengers and emergency vehicle operators) ahead of cyclists. Here’s the back-and-forth:

Streetsblog: Even after last year, the snow plan still says bike lanes get cleared after all streets are clear. That makes it seem that your approach is to clear all the lanes for cars before then going into the bike lane and clearing the curbs for pedestrians.

Grayson: That’s an expectation set, meaning we don’t want to tell a bicyclist, “Your bike lane is gonna be cleared immediately.” But it’s getting cleared. We want people to know what the expectation is so that they walk out the door and say, “You know what, I’m going to have a I have a challenge if I decide to bike right now.” But it is also manpower contingent, meaning that if it’s a big storm and we have to put out every plow at the same exact time, like putting out six plows across main avenues going curb-to-curb to get it all out, I need every one of those plows for that operation. The second I don’t need the six-plow operation, that frees up one of those plows. That driver may go out in one of the smaller pieces. If I need all lanes open, we’re going to get all lanes open and then we’re going to pivot. But if we don’t have huge events, then we’re going to get to the bike lanes relatively quickly.”

Streetsblog: But there you go again. You mentioned expectations. But given the snow plan, drivers have an expectation that they’re going to be able to use the roads much sooner than cyclists or pedestrians. And that’s a flaw because firstly, you don’t want drivers driving in the snow anyway — but then the first thing you do is clear the roads for them. So why use six plows? Why not clear a lane of a three-lane road for the emergency vehicle or for the bus, then equalize it for the pedestrians on the corners and the bike lanes, and then go back and clean the other two lanes of the road? You mentioned like six plows going up Third Avenue for example. You don’t need six plows going up Third Avenue. You need three plows going up Third Avenue.

Grayson: I think that you’re on to something … to a degree. And maybe you are making a great argument. But from our experience, if you clear just one lane, guess what normally happens in human behavior? Somebody blocks the one lane that’s open. So unfortunately while I would agree with you, there is Maslow’s Law.

Streetsblog. Wait, what? Maslow’s Law? We are going to have to look that up later.

Grayson: It’s the hierarchy of needs. So what happens is the minute we clear a lane, that’s the lane that people use, and they don’t use the uncleared lane. But if the cleared lane is blocked, we now have people taking extra risk into an uncleared lane. An Uber will stop for five seconds and wait for a passenger. … We don’t want people driving in unsafe weather. The idea is “Don’t drive” so we can clear the lanes and then get everyone back on the road. It’s to keep the whole commerce going and the mass transit.

Streetsblog: But cyclists have to work just like anybody in a car. And the mayor is often talking about “every day New Yorkers” who “have to” drive to work. Well, everyday workers also bike, and we think that just gets forgotten in the culture of New York.

Grayson: You’re right, but I think the city is moving much more towards a walker-friendly, biker-friendly environment as a result of things being so outdoors during the pandemic. The streetscape itself is opening up. It’s sad that it sometimes takes large catalysts to make you open your eyes and say, “Oh, wow, this is what’s going on,” even though there have been advocates and people who are trying to live lifestyles that reduce greenhouse gas, people on Citi Bike. That’s a pivot point. We were happy to know that at our garage in Astoria, the workforce asked for a bike rack. I’ve worked in this department for 23 years. Nobody ever asked for a bike. It’s little things like that that show the culture is changing. The pandemic really opened everybody’s eyes to how many people make their living on a bike because how many people were home safe and the guy or gal bringing them their food or their sundries or whatever became like the greatest thing ever happened.

In a wide-ranging interview, Grayson also touched on related Sanitation Department topics, including:

  • Why the agency included a new section — Section H, which outlines homeowner responsibility — in the snow removal plan. It has long been understood that homeowners are responsible for clearing snow, but Grayson is concerned that not enough people are doing it. “It’s to help highlight it. We are seeing less people shoveling. I know we were going through a worldwide pandemic, but for us, it was like, ‘Where’s everybody? Where’s the shoveling?’ I don’t know what it is. I grew up in Queens. There were kids that used to come around after snow and ring doorbells. I did that all the time, but people I talk to from my neighborhood say you don’t see that anymore. So now you have Miss McGillicuddy and she’s dying to give somebody 10, 20 bucks, and there’s nobody ringing the bell. So now what is that? I don’t know if that’s just the malaise of the generation. But people need to understand that they do have owner’s responsibility to clear the sidewalk. And whenever they put a camera in front of us last year, we would say, ‘And, hey, listen, don’t throw the snow in the bike lane.'”
  • Why the Clean Curbs program is delayed in residential areas: The city has been exploring — for years! — a method of storing garbage in a central container (perhaps one or two per block) to make pickups easier and to deter rats. “We’re excited about the program, but here’s what happens: It sounds like a great idea — except if you’re the house that the bin is in front of. … Or, if you’re a business that’s part of a partnership with other businesses with these bins. Maybe you only get three pallets of stuff a day and your neighboring business gets 78 pallets a day. You’re going to be concerned that your garbage won’t fit in there after the other guy puts 78 pallets worth of stuff in there. These are not unsolvable challenges, but in the city of New York most residents want to live under the Burger King model: they want it their way. … To get 8.8 million people to think the same thing at the same time, it’s very, very hard.”
  • The Sanitation Department definitely supports daylighting corners: “I have advocated for many times is more ‘No parking here to corner’ signs,” he said. “They would help us do our job in tighter street with tough turns. But there’s a concern in residential areas. They hate having those ‘No parking here to the corner’ signs. That’s the biggest challenge to me.”
  • Real change is coming … at some point … in the future: Grayson believes that the car culture of New York City is changing, albeit slowly. “All the conversations we’re having across the agencies about public space, about plazas, about bike racks, shows that the city government is changing, it’s evolving. We are definitely a car-centric city, and I think it will take a very long time for that to not be the case. But I think that with creative design will come behavior modification. Remember when the bus lane on Woodhaven Boulevard opened? People there were like, ‘Oh my god, it’s the worst. It’s the bane of my existence.’ Yeah, yeah. Except, I can tell you now that I have less conversations like that now because it’s working. And maybe when people see that we’re taking extra attention to clearing the bike lanes, maybe they’ll change behavior. Maybe they won’t shovel their snow into the bike lane. They’ll see we’re doing best practices, so maybe they won’t ruin it for everybody.”

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