There’s now a viral Twitter hashtag—#trashcity—that pokes fun at New York City’s losing battle with waste. Random New Yorkers post photos of detritus piled in bags along sidewalks, overflowing from trash cans, or spread along curbs, parks and trains.
I’ve lived in Brooklyn for over a month now, and can attest. The trash—which is most commonly found piled in enclosed bags along commercial and residential sidewalks—blocks pedestrians, leaks fluid, attracts vermin, and creates nasty smells.
New York City doesn’t have to be this way. The trash piles are reflective of larger failures to recognize and enforce optimum use of its own right-of-way.
The problem starts with the simple, somewhat unavoidable fact that the city produces lots of waste: 12,000 tons daily. This justifies a huge trash collection apparatus going in and out of neighborhoods. The city’s sanitation department (DSNY) collects from most city blocks 2-3 times per week, although which days varies by address. Businesses and residents must put their trash out from 4pm-12am on the evenings before pickup. But because many businesses need trash picked up daily, there’s a complex network of private collection companies who supplement DSNY.
In a normal city, they would collect trash from alleyways. But New York City doesn’t have many of those due to space constraints. And because the city government hasn’t created any other place where trash can go, it goes on sidewalks.
Here’s where it could go instead: small bins. In other dense cities worldwide, trash bins are placed curbside on collection day. They keep trash off sidewalks, insulate from vermin, and make life easier for sanitation workers. In Buenos Aires, they have standard but effective bins that are rolled up to the curb next to parked cars. In Barcelona, they have more tasteful-looking bins permanently installed. In Switzerland, one company sends trash from street bins to the underground, so that at-grade collection isn’t necessary. CHECKPEDS, a Manhattan-based street-design organization, has called for New York City to adopt a program called TOSS (Trash Off Sidewalk Space). It would install six “Waste Corrals” on a typical side-street block, each holding about 85 bags. This would slightly inconvenience residents and businesses who must carry their trash a little further instead of throwing it outside their doors. But it would make streets more pleasant for everyone else, and DSNY more efficient, since it could collect from a smaller number of pickup points.
So why doesn’t New York City implement this? The departments of Sanitation and Transportation have shown interest. But curb space is mostly now used for what in this city amounts to a narrow interest—car owners who want free or underpriced parking. Whenever different uses—bus lanes, wider sidewalks, drop-off zones, etc.—are suggested for that curb space, drivers bombard public meetings to demand continuation of their handout. City officials haven’t found a coherent way to communicate to drivers that this is an irrational use of valuable land.
One way they could is by speaking the language of markets: if curb space was priced at its actual value, it would likely be used in ways more beneficial to the broader public. As Connor Harris writes in City Journal, “cheap street parking in New York exists by government fiat; a free market for urban space—in which, for example, drivers hoping to use a Midtown parking spot had to outbid the thousands of pedestrians who would rather clear sidewalks of trash by installing a dumpster— would raise its price or convert it to more productive uses.”
Assuming the “language of markets” isn’t embraced by New York City officials anytime soon, they could still invoke common-sense notions about fairness and balance of rights: millions of New Yorkers must deal with piles of trash daily, so that the minority who own cars can enjoy free storage.
But until officials can make those arguments—and advance them politically—the problem will remain. Every resident will need to see, smell, and walk around huge garbage piles daily in “trash city.”
Scott Beyer owns and manages The Market Urbanism Report. He is a roving cross-country journalist who writes regular columns for Forbes, Governing Magazine and HousingOnline.com.
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