D.C.'s Newest Superhero: 'Sweepercam'

There is nothing so mundane as street sweeping. So how did the District of Columbia generate cost savings, bring in additional revenue, streamline operations and...
by | May 5, 2010 AT 3:00 AM

There is nothing so mundane as street sweeping. So how did the District of Columbia generate cost savings, bring in additional revenue, streamline operations and save the Potomac River by radically improving its street-sweeping operations? By investing in a high-tech solution for a low-tech activity.

Street sweeping in D.C. was a disaster. Like most cities, D.C. had parking rules that banned on-street parking on street sweeping days. A lot of people ignored the rules because they learned they could get away with it. Historically, parking control officers in D.C. could only cover roughly 20 percent of the street sweeping routes, meaning most scofflaws got away with parking illegally.

Cars blocking the sweepers are bad news. For every car along its route, a sweeper misses at least three spaces worth of street -- meaning all that dirt and grease wind up in the Potomac.

Hiring enough ticket writers, or using police, is simply prohibitively expensive. Residents had learned that in general the District's sweeper-day parking rules were on the books but were almost never enforced. What could the District do?

Enter the District's high-tech superhero: Sweepercam, the creation not of DC Comics but the D.C. Department of Public Works. By equipping each street sweeper with a digital camera, drivers are now able to simply snap a photo of the license plate of an illegally parked vehicle. Using high-tech license plate recognition software, the city then automatically generates and mails out parking citations to owners. A Global Positioning System includes a precise location of each ticketed vehicle, as well as a digital photo. Instead of getting away with it, anyone who parks along a sweeper lane now gets a ticket.

"Sweepercam has been very effective at keeping the curb lane clear so our vehicles can make a clean sweep," said DPW Director William O. Howland. Thanks to Sweepercam, Howland says, "we will be ticketing the vehicles that are parked illegally and keeping the sweepers from doing their job."

Like many cities, Washington, D.C., is dominated by impervious surfaces such as roads, rooftops and parking lots. When it rains, the District's stormwater flows directly into local streams and rivers.

Those hulking yellow beasts with their whirring brushes suck up not only dirt and trash, but nasty pollutants such as oil and grease (ten pounds per mile swept) and phosphorous and nitrogen (three pounds per mile swept). Left on the street, rain washes these 'nasties' into the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, and from there to the ecologically-fragile Chesapeake Bay.

The District of Columbia appears to be the first city in the nation to merge the high-tech with altered backend processes to completely reengineer the way street sweeping and the associated ticketing process is managed. The mash-up of these two related but independent functions creates a "superhero" program that other jurisdictions are now starting to look at.

It won't be easy, however, as Sweepercams may require changes to the law. In fact, D.C. needed to change its parking ticket law to make it legal to use the Sweepercams. According to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review , Pittsburgh is considering installing cameras on its sweepers, but doing so may require changes to both state and municipal law.

In Chicago, a recent initiative to install cameras on street sweepers has been abandoned due to legal issues, reports Streets and Sanitation spokesman Matt Smith in the Chicago Sun-Times : "To get the desired results consistently, we need to pair our camera technology with higher-tech signage that will work in conjunction with the cameras to confirm our data so that it can stand up in a hearing." There were also some "big brother" privacy concerns with the Chicago program.

Though ground-breaking in its application, the underlying technology of license plate recognition is well proven. In London, vehicles are charged a special fee for driving downtown during business hours. Beginning in 2003, London's program used cameras mounted around the zone to capture the license plates of vehicles entering the charging zone in order to make sure they had paid their fee.

As the trend toward digital innovation advances (see, Phone + GPS + Camera = Revolution ) expect to see more Sweepercam mashups that employ high-tech solutions to mundane problems -- with potential superhero results.