News / Toronto

Everything you ever wanted to know about street sweepers

The innocuous subject almost undid Toronto's budget.


City council’s 15-hour debate about the 2017 budget all came down to one seemingly innocuous thing: street sweeping.

In the wee hours of Thursday morning, councillors had all but cemented the $10 billion spending plan when the issue of keeping streets clean reared its head.

Months of talking about daycare fees, money for homeless shelters and repairs to social housing were overshadowed by street sweeping when council realized a $2 million vote to scrub our roads at current levels didn't have any money behind it.

Eventually, after a long delay that saw councillors and senior staff huddle to work out the details, everyone decided to pull the needed money from reserves.  

It made us curious about what goes into the oft-overlooked business of keeping city streets clean.

Here’s six things to know about the small issue that nearly stole all the budget thunder.

1. Toronto operates 46 street sweepers. That’s down from 56 sweepers in 2010. But, newer vehicles use technology that pick up more dirt. On average, the machines clean arterial roads twice a month, local roads once every two months and laneways once a year. Frequency is based on need with things like the number of trees and people all taken into account.

2. Chinatown, Kensington, and the Entertainment District need to be cleaned most often, said John Mende, who works in transportation services. In fact, streets there are cleaned almost daily.

3. On streets with lots of cars and pedestrians, street sweepers operate at night because it’s less busy. But, if all that brushing is competing with your shuteye, lodging a complaint will be difficult: street sweepers are exempt from the city’s noise bylaw.

4. The gutter brooms on street sweepers (think big swirling scrubbers) send all the dirt, grime and trash to the centre of the machine, where a rubber conveyor picks up the material and sends it to a bin.

5. “The key to a successful sweep is water,” writes Kate Ascher in The Works, her 2005 book that explains pretty much everything one needs to know about urban infrastructure. New York City’s street sweepers carry 900 litres of water and refill their tanks at fire hydrants with special magnetic caps, the book says.

6. Toronto street sweepers picked up 123,461 cubic metres worth of dirt and generally nasty stuff in 2012. That’s enough to fill 50 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

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