A demo of Philly's new street sweeping program, which uses crews with backpack blowers

Philadelphia ended its decade-long run as the only big city in the country without a street sweeping program on Tuesday with the launch of a pilot program being deployed in six neighborhoods.

But instead of adopting the method that’s popular across the country, Philly officials chose to do things a little differently.

Most municipalities — including New York, Boston, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. — apply parking restrictions to clear the roads and make room for street sweeping vehicles. Instead, to avoid burdening drivers with the task of moving their cars out of the way, Philadelphia will use a two-part process.

First, a walking crew equipped with backpack blowers, brooms and rakes will send sidewalk trash under and around parked cars and into the street. That’s where a mechanical sweeper will take over, sucking up all the litter.

Confused? Here, watch for yourself.

Starting this week, seven-person trash pickup crews will traverse these neighborhoods:

  • West Philadelphia (from Parkside to Lancaster Avenue and 52nd to Girard Avenue)
  • Southwest (from Woodland to Kingsessing Avenue and 49th to Cemetary Avenue)
  • Kensington (from 2nd to Frankford Avenue and Tioga to Lehigh Avenue)
  • Strawberry Mansion (from Diamond to Lehigh Avenue and 29th to 33rd Street)
  • Logan (from Godfrey to Roosevelt Boulevard and Broad to 5th Street)
  • South Philly (from McKean to Oregon Avenue and 4th to 8th Street)

They’re all areas that ranked 2.0 or higher on the city’s Litter Index, a number that indicates so much street trash, it requires city services to clean up.

On the day after each neighborhood’s regularly scheduled trash pickup, sanitation trucks will make their way through. Simultaneously, SWEEP Officers will patrol the neighborhoods on foot to watch out for code violations related to litter. If this pilot goes well, Mayor Jim Kenney said he hopes to expand it to the rest of the city — paid for by an $11.7 million Streets Department investment over the next five years.

During a demonstration of the program on Tuesday morning, it proved to be a pretty dusty operation. The blowers, of course, sent trash flying around the 5700 block of Greenway in Kingsessing, into the eyes, ears and throats of many onlookers. *coughs into keyboard*

Some groups are now lobbying against the program, like the urbanist org 5th Square. Volunteer Dave Brindley is worried about the longterm effects of trash wafting around residential areas — especially in Kensington, where litter oftentimes includes used needles.

“I was surprised how bad it was,” Brindley told Billy Penn. “All of these dust particles are going to be kicked up into the air, along with the toxic exhaust from the leaf blowers.”

Other problems: those backpack blowers are noisy, and they’re known to be terrible for the environment. Also, the program might not be scalable for the rest of the city if it takes seven people to get the job done — most street sweeping initiatives employ just two staffers per crew.

City spokesperson Kelly Cofrancisco wants to assuage Philly residents by reminding them that this is just a test. If it doesn’t work out after six months, officials will adjust the program or nix it altogether.

“In general, that’s why we’re doing a pilot,” Cofrancisco said. “Obviously we plan to evaluate this and see how it works.”


In the future, she said the city’s considering battery-powered blowers to lessen the environmental impact. Plus, Cofrancisco thinks today’s demo was likely the worst the program will ever look — since there was so much litter and debris left on the sidewalk. Once folks are cleaning it weekly, it won’t get this bad again.

“We are definitely looking at all the options for cleaner streets,” Cofrancisco added. “Ultimately, we think a lot of people also need their cars to get where they’re going: their job, school, wherever it may be.”

How communities solved their own problems

Meanwhile, Philadelphia neighborhoods haven’t waited for the city to solve its own trash problem. Long before the city announced its street sweeping-variant program, folks had gathered together to clean up streets on their own.


In 2015, this South Philly neighborhood founded a street cleaning program that employs folks from the Philly behavioral health nonprofit Horizon House — folks with addiction, developmental disabilities or those who’ve experienced homelessness. The trash collectors traverse the neighborhood with brooms and trash bins in tow, scooping up the litter they see.

A Streets Dep. staffer shows off a 35-gallon trash can to North Philly residents Credit: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

Bella Vista

Then last year, the Bella Vista Neighbors Association joined in, using a fundraising campaign to pay for sidewalk and curb sweeping that was staffed by a professional trash collection company.

North Central

In the neighborhood around Temple, there are a couple ongoing efforts. First, there’s a partnership with the nonprofits One Day at a Time and JDog Junk Removal & Hauling, a veteran-staffed trash removal service, to intensify cleanup efforts during times when students move out of their off-campus housing — and often dump their trash on the streets.

And just this month, Temple launched a community-run special services district, which aims to increase the capacity of the nonprofit-contracted program. That one hasn’t launched quite yet.

And the Streets Department announced back in November that it would pilot the Philacan program, which tests the effectiveness of additional trash cans outside each rowhome at reducing litter. (Neighbors say it hasn’t worked so well.)

Germantown’s new dump truck Credit: Courtesy Jordan Ferrarini


In February of this year, the Northwest Philadelphia neighborhood got on board, too. A couple Germantown residents teamed up to buy a literal trash truck. They’re now training six employees — all young people from the community — to drive it around and clean up the community.

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...