What is Street Sweeping?

Mary McMahon

Street sweeping is a road maintenance technique employed in many regions of the world in areas ranging from small towns to large urban environments. It is often combined with spraying and scrubbing to remove surface filth to leave streets clean, safe to drive on, and tidy. Most areas which have street sweeping contracts conduct sweeps on a regular schedule so that citizens know when they need to move vehicles.

Street sweepers work to remove garbage from roads and curbs.
Street sweepers work to remove garbage from roads and curbs.

Street sweeping of various forms has been practiced for centuries, especially in urban areas where debris collects in the street. Crews originally used large brooms to sweep up garbage and detritus from the street, and sometimes followed with buckets of water to wash urine, vomit, spilled beverages, and other unsavory substances off the roadway. This kept garbage from accumulating and attracting rats, and also kept the streets pleasant to walk in and live by.

Street sweepers may work to clear debris from private parking lots.
Street sweepers may work to clear debris from private parking lots.

In the early twentieth century, many cities adopted street sweeping machines to replace inefficient broom crews. Usually a single individual sits in a sweeping machine and steers it down the street, pushing garbage to one side of the street for collection. In most cases, the machine also incorporates a vacuum, so that as detritus is dislodged, it is vacuumed up into the body of the machine for disposal later. Deluxe machines include water jets and scrub brushes to further clean the street.

In addition to removing unsightly surface debris, street sweeping also clears gutters, which improves drainage in the winter. Furthermore, it removes toxins and potential hazards from the street which could negatively affect wild life, especially in areas where street drains empty directly into a body of water. In many cities, this process incorporates other environmental measures as well: the debris collected is sorted into compostables and recycleables, for example, so that only a small amount goes into a landfill. Many cities also use “green” sweeping machines which are powered with solar panels or natural gas.

Usually, street sweeping in large urban areas focuses on commercial districts. Some cities sweep residential areas as well, although on a much less frequent basis. In heavily trafficked commercial areas, street sweepers may work every morning, but once a week is more usual. In all cases, signs are posted which indicate the hours when drivers should not park. Parking during street sweeping will result in a ticket and sometimes a tow as well, as it is important that the street be empty and clear for sweeping to be effective.

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