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Are New York City Streets Getting Filthier? The Numbers Aren’t So Clear

The mayor’s most recent management report showed the number of streets rated ‘filthy’ is up — but the sanitation department argues it’s due to the methodology used.

February 3, 2023 Katie Honan, The City
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Mayor Eric Adams’ war on trash and rats has led him to increase funding for more litter-basket pickup and lot-cleanup programs — but his office is at odds with New York’s Strongest about how they measure whether a street is clean or dirty.

The mayor’s preliminary management report released Monday shows a marked drop in the number of streets rated “acceptable” over the past three years — from 96.4% in fiscal year 2020, to 93.7 in 2021, to 89.6% in 2022.

There was also a twofold increase in the number of streets rated “filthy,” although that number is still small. While just .1% of streets were reported filthy in 2020, that rose to 0.6% in 2021 and 1.5% last year. (Even though “acceptable” and “filthy” are the only categories listed in the report, the numbers do not add up to 100%.)

The city’s sidewalks were also reportedly 1.6% dirtier — from 96.8% acceptably clean two years ago, to 95.2% this fiscal year, according to the data.

The number of sidewalks rated “filthy” also went up, from .1% in fiscal year 2020 to .8% this year.

“As of this year, DSNY has reoriented around cleanliness functions, regularly cleaning over 1,000 areas in the city that had been ignored for decades such as step streets, overpasses, walkways and medians,” the report says.

The Department of Sanitation argues the metric used to measure cleanliness is antiquated and doesn’t fully capture the work being done to make the city cleaner, according to a spokesperson.

“We know most New Yorkers don’t believe 92% of all New York City streets are clean, or that they were 95% clean five years ago,” Vincent Gragnani, a spokesperson for the department, told THE CITY.

“The metric is calculated by looking at a random sampling of streets every year. While the Mayor’s Office of Operations has updated the methodology to sample more streets and create a clearer picture, the streets are judged by standards that some find to be outdated.”

Calculus of Clean

To calculate street cleanliness, inspectors from the Mayor’s Office of Operations — not the DSNY — do random spot-checks among the city’s 172,499 blocks. Across the five boroughs, there are approximately 19,000 miles of streets and 12,000 miles of sidewalks, according to the report.

In November 2021, the office of operations changed its sampling method from surveying the same 6,899 blocks every month to a dynamic rotating model.

“I feel like trash is having its moment in New York City,” said Annie Carforo, climate justice campaign coordinator at the nonprofit WeAct for Environmental Justice. Among WeAct’s membership of around 11,000 people, Carforo said, the biggest complaints are about trash and rats.

“There’s this real sense that people can feel that this is reaching crisis levels and specifically they talk about rats, and that the rats have never been this bad.”

In last year’s budget, the mayor allocated nearly $41 million more for his “Get Stuff Clean” initiative which included targeting neighborhoods across the city for increased cleanups, like clearing debris from vacant or empty lots.

The Sanitation Department pointed to positive outcomes it achieved in 2022 under that initiative. Sanitation workers cleaned up or fixed 3.6 million litter baskets in the first four months of the current fiscal year, the city’s data shows. That led to the number of 311 complaints about overflowing baskets dropping 56%, compared to the same time in 2021, according to the management report data.

There were also COVID-related changes to trash pickup: The total amount of residential garbage collected was down by 10% compared with the previous year, as more people spent more time at workplaces rather than home.

Commercial trash is collected by private commercial-waste carters, an industry that is regulated by the Business Integrity Commission.

Adam’s focus on clean streets combined with his vocal hatred of rats also led him to create a “rat czar” position, announced in November.

The city last month said it has received around 900 applications for the gig, which is listed with a $120,000 to $170,000 salary range.

The health department monitors rat inspections and rat activity across the city, as shown on the rat information portal.

The mayor has said the recently announced citywide expansion of curbside composting should help address the rat population by isolating the food waste that rats eat, although a three-month pilot program in Queens — now on hiatus — wasn’t long enough to determine if it reduced the population there.

It’s common sense because it takes a third of our trash out of our trash stream and away from rats,” Deputy Mayor Meera Joshi said at a press conference Wednesday.

“We can kill every rat. That’s helpful, but we have to cut off their food source. That’s a better way.”

Do you feel New York City is cleaner or dirtier since the COVID-19 pandemic? Let us know what neighborhood you’re in, and what you’re seeing on your streets, to help us report on it. Email [email protected]

THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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