Editorial: L.A. needs a smarter street-cleaning program now

Los Angeles has a trash problem. Streets, alleys and vacant lots are so littered with debris and garbage that a recent internal city report warned that some neighborhoods look unsafe and ungoverned. Only one-third of city streets are regularly swept. There’s a backlog of 400 abandoned waste sites — trash-filled lots and the like — that need to be cleared. And until very recently, there’s been no almost no enforcement of illegal dumping laws. There are few city services more basic than cleaning the streets, and L.A. needs to develop a comprehensive system for making sure it gets done.

Curbside waste and illegal dumping are long-standing issues in L.A., but they got worse after the recession and the city budget crunch. The city used to spend $12 million a year to remove abandoned waste, but much of that program was cut. The Bureau of Street Services has stopped cleaning alleys regularly and has reduced by nearly a third the number of miles of street swept because of delays in replacing retired drivers.

But the trash problem isn’t just a budget issue. The new city report, produced by the Office of the City Administrator, suggests that L.A. needs to reorganize and modernize its approach. For example, the city hasn’t changed its street sweeping routes in years and doesn’t give priority to the most heavily used streets. The Bureau of Sanitation does a good job responding to calls from residents to pick up abandoned couches or mattresses but the city hasn’t kept track of those calls in order to assess where garbage is illegally dumped. How can the city develop programs to proactively keep streets from getting dirty if it doesn’t know where the dirtiest streets are? New York City regularly checks street and sidewalk cleanliness and issues monthly ratings. San Francisco has adopted standards for odors, litter, grime, graffiti and trash can fullness, and ranks the cleanest and dirtiest streets.

This year, Mayor Eric Garcetti and the City Council budgeted $5 million to begin addressing the backlog of abandoned waste sites. But as the city begins to restore some basic services, L.A. should be designing a smarter, data-driven street cleaning program. That means spending more time and money in the dirtiest areas of the city, where dumpsites only beget more illegal dumping. It means investigating and cracking down on illegal commercial dumping (something the city attorney’s office has recently begun). And it means setting measurable standards for how clean L.A.'s streets should be and then working with communities to meet and maintain those standards. Life in the big city may be gritty but it doesn’t have to be trashy.

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