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Snow Removal

Sanitation Promises to Plow Bike Lanes at the Same Time As Roads

Drivers will no longer take priority over cyclists for snow removal, Sanitation Commissioner Jessica Tisch said on Wednesday.

12:01 AM EST on December 21, 2023

Photo: Kevin Duggan|

Sanitation Commissioner Jessica Tisch shows off the agency’s bike lane plows, at DSNY’s Spring Street garage in Hudson Square.

All we need now is some snow!

Drivers will no longer take priority over cyclists for snow removal as Department of Sanitation officials promised Wednesday to clear bike paths this winter at the same time as the rest of the roads.

The pledge from Sanitation Commissioner Jessica Tisch comes after DSNY officials insisted for years workers clear roads for emergency vehicles before snow removal happens in bike lanes. With flakes in the forecast after a two-year dry spell of significant snow, DSNY has staffed up for this year to meet the needs of both modes, Tisch said.

“For the first time, DSNY has the staff and the equipment to service both types of travel infrastructure simultaneously,” the commissioner told reporters at the agency’s Spring Street garage in Manhattan on Wednesday.

"For the first time the plan calls for doing both at the same time, rather than prioritizing one over the other or making trade-offs."

Three years ago, Sanitation leaders actually apologized for not clearing snow from critical bike lanes — in response to reporting from Streetsblog. DSNY's personnel and mechanical infrastructure had failed to keep up with the expansion of the protected bike infrastructure and the pandemic-era boom in cycling, officials said.

Then-Sanitation Commissioner Ed Grayson vowed to do better. The agency tested smaller plow vehicles to clear out bike lanes, ultimately purchasing 44 of them. The city's snow removal fleet consists of roughly 3,200 machines, most of which are trash collection trucks the agency repurposes for snow. 

The smaller vehicles also serve a dual purpose by swapping out the shovel for brushes — allowing them to clean bike paths that are too narrow for regular street sweeping vehicles. 

But using the sizable fleet of little plows — enough to cover 165 miles of protected bike paths, according to the city — still came second to clearing car lanes if staffing levels did not allow for both.

Officials hired 563 more DSNY workers since the last "plowable snow event" way back in early 2022, officials said Wednesday. The agency also updated its legally mandated annual snow plan, which previously codified the supremacy of car lanes for snow clearance, to reflect the shift.

DSNY is “committed to dispatching bike lane plows at the same time as roadway plows to help make protected bike lanes passable during and shortly after snowfall events," the snow plan now reads. The agency also won’t rank certain streets anymore into “primary, secondary, and tertiary” categories.

“Every street in the city is on a route and we are staffed to dispatch every route at the same time. Prioritization of certain streets is a thing of the past,” Tisch said.

Snow operations evaded Mayor Adams’s proposed mid-year budget cuts, Tisch said on Wednesday.

Last winter marked a record low for snowfall at 2.3 inches — not enough for any day to qualify as "plowable" for DSNY. Weather forecasters expect between 18 and 26 inches this winter, still below the historic average of 29.8 inches.

The agency also has more than 100 so-called "skid steer machines" that scoop snow from hard-to-reach areas such as bus stops and fire hydrants, but are much slower at clearing bike lanes. 

A skid steer removes snow from the Ninth Street bike lane in Park Slope in 2020. File photo: Gersh Kuntzman

Advocates lauded Sanitation for taking action on bike lanes, which other parts of city government routinely disrespect, such as the police not enforcing against drivers hogging the cycling paths. 

“Having an operating agency come around and get it right, it’s good and it’s fantastic,” said Jon Orcutt, the director of advocacy at Bike New York.

“The big question is, are we fighting the last war and will it ever snow again.”

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