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Reader's Digest Clean Cities for 2006: #5 is San Francisco


by Shelley Ross and Ranger Kidwell-Ross

In March of 2006, Reader's Digest conducted an analysis of what makes for a clean city. Here's an overview of the criteria they used, followed by our own interview with James Armstrong, San Francisco's Superintendent of Street Environmental Services, which is the City agency handling sweeping. Perhaps this information can help your city make the list in the coming years!

Here's an overview of the area and its challenges.

San Francisco Department of Public Works

The data used for San Francisco included the counties of Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, San Francisco and San Mateo.

Background: Once a prominent shipping and manufacturing center, San Francisco now has booming financial and business sectors. Since 1980, the city's population has increased by more than a third and its per capita income ranks among the nation's highest. Few places have a citizenry that is more environmentally conscious.

Problems: Like nearly every traffic-clogged urban California area, San Francisco has struggled with high emissions of greenhouse gases and carbon monoxide. Its Hunter's Point area is home to two polluting power plants and a highly contaminated Naval Shipyard, now defunct. In 2002, a national report found that while San Francisco's source water was safe, its tap water contained high levels of a cancer-causing contaminant known as total trihalomethanes, or TTHM, a byproduct of chlorinating water.

Solutions: San Francisco has benefited from the state of California's bold and controversial air-quality regulations. The city's Environment Department -- something many municipalities lack -- is seeking to close the power plants at Hunter's Point, and the federal EPA is overseeing a massive cleanup of the shipyard there.

United Rotary Brushes Information

Meanwhile, San Francisco is in the forefront of efforts to promote the use of clean-air vehicles, with its public transit leading the way. The city's bus fleet includes over 700 electric-drive vehicles, with plans to convert all the buses to this clean-air technology by 2020.

As for concerns about its drinking water, San Francisco responded by modifying its water treatment process, which brought the TTHM levels back down into the safe zone. Finally, the local government is finding ways to push energy savings, including a program that encourages residents to exchange their old strings of holiday lights for a free set of more efficient LED bulbs, courtesy of the city and Pacific Gas and Electric.

To get the information for our article, we spoke with James Armstrong, Superintendent of Street Environmental Services with the Department of Public Works of the city of San Francisco.

We learned that for general pavement sweeping San Francisco runs a fleet of TYMCO 600 vacuum sweepers, in a combination of both diesel and CNG-powered machines. The fleet of model 600s is composed of 27 diesel-powered sweepers and 10 that run on CNG. The city also has two of TYMCO's smaller, more maneuverable model 435 machines. They see regenerative air sweepers as highly effective overall, especially in picking up paper and street debris.

The City's 10-machine broom sweeper fleet is composed primarily of Elgin rear-broom sweepers, which they have eight of, along with one Athey-Mobil and one Tennant sweeper. Armstrong cited the broom machines as being necessary for removal of sand in some areas.

Although San Francisco's steep hills once posed a machinery challenge, but Armstrong finds that today's twin-engine sweepers work quite well for this city. It's good to see that CNG-powered sweepers, especially, have matured to where there's no problem on even hills like those of San Francisco.

For their inner city and walkway sweeping, the City uses a fleet of 15 walk-behind Applied Sweepers' Green Machines, as well as two ride-on models.

Armstrong told us the city is proud of being out in front of the crowd with innovative actions in the sweeping department, in using clean-air vehicles and quieter machines. "If anything new comes out, we always take a look and see if we can accommodate it to benefit our operation," he said.

The main traffic corridors, high-visibility tourist areas and heavy traffic areas are swept seven days a week, including holidays. A program of controlled parking is followed, with signs posted informing the public of the two-hour period when parking is forbidden during sweeping, and violators receive a [$35.00] citation.

Popular tourist areas are swept on the graveyard shift, 10:30 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. "We use our Green Machines for sweeping pathway areas and tight spots where we can't get a larger sweeper, such as downtown areas and the business district, close to buildings. They are especially helpful in the narrow alleys of Chinatown," said Armstrong.

The Department of Public Works is particularly proud of a move made to help protect the health of city employees. San Francisco's air sweepers are all fitted with 'quiet packages' to lower the sound level of operation. This quiet-pack installation was inspired by concern for their drivers' hearing. Decreasing ambient noise benefits the quality of life for city residents, as well. The Elgin rear-broom sweepers, which typically make less noise than air machines, are another option in areas where quiet operation is of great concern.

San Francisco bears environmental concerns in mind in the disposal process of their street debris, as well. A third party contractor sorts the debris and removes recyclables, then the remainder goes to landfill. To comply with the Clean Water Act, the city has put in filters to trap material that otherwise would go down into storm drains during the sweeper wash-out process.

Mechanical sweeping activities are responsible for cleaning 98% of San Francisco, with the remaining 2% is done by hand. This work is contacted out to a third party. "We've begun working with business-improvement districts, involving nonprofit organizations that employ people to sweep during the daytime, a visible presence in our commercial and tourist areas," said Armstrong. "This approach communicates concern for appearance and cleanliness in a very direct way."

You may contact James Armstrong via email sent to:

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