Bright orange signs alert residents to move their vehicles in order to avoid a ticket. Credit: Courtney Kueppers

John Micensky was on a mission to fight city hall. “This year I will be spending a lot of time emailing my local reps about the paper street sweeping signs in Chicago,” the 26-year-old Logan Square resident tweeted to his roughly 400 followers in June. 

Micensky, an audio engineer, decided that he had finally had enough. This wasn’t the first time he had pronounced to the world his stance on street sweeping, or the bright orange signs, which he abhors. “All I’m sayin is I’ve seen a lot of ‘street sweeping’ signs in Chicago but my street always looks the same,” he wrote in June 2019. And in October of that year, “I would rather sweep my own fucking street for the rest of my life than get hit with a random street sweeping ticket.”

The generally laid-back, music-obsessed Micensky, who’s sporting a smirk and a cow-skin-patterned bucket hat in his Twitter picture, estimated he’s racked up at least eight street sweeping tickets in the last five years. He’s among the Chicago residents for whom street sweeping feels like nothing more than a nuisance, which they consider a sporadic and futile endeavor solely meant to squeeze cash from taxpayers.

“It just doesn’t seem like there’s really a whole lot of cleaning,” he told me. “I mean, maybe it takes a couple cans off of the street or whatever when that person goes by, but I don’t see a difference in my quality of living aside from costing me money.” 

You don’t have to own a car in Chicago to notice the orange signs with large days of the week letters, usually strung on trees. But if you do have a vehicle that you park on the street, there’s a pretty good chance you have a story like Micensky’s. 

Street sweeping was once cutting-edge technology and its implementation as standard practice attracted heated discussions among city leaders across the country. In the last couple hundred years, street sweeping has gone from removing horse manure to picking up trash left behind by motorists and passersby, as well as debris, concrete, roadkill, and fallen leaves. The Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation did not comply with multiple interview requests made for this story. A spokeswoman, however, answered questions via e-mail, in which she said the department is “dedicated to maintaining a safe and healthy environment on city streets and alleys.”

“This includes regular sweeping of residential and main streets to remove trash and help prevent any leaves, debris, dirt, and other material from entering and clogging the sewer drainage system,” the statement reads. “Street sweepers also regularly sweep viaducts to keep drainage systems clear and prevent flooding.”

Regular street cleaning does have environmental benefits like improving stormwater quality, preventing dust that can be harmful to human health from reentering the air when kicked up by wind or vehicles, and improving a city’s cleanliness and aesthetics, according to TYMCO, a Texas-based street sweeper manufacturer.

But like other municipal activities that are so integrated into our lives that we barely notice them until it costs us money, some Chicago residents are quick to dismiss the need for street sweeping at all. Street sweeping is almost exclusively spoken about with snark and disdain, at least on social media—the town square for sweeping ticket tales. When a driver doesn’t move their car in time on street sweeping days, the orange envelope tucked beneath their windshield wiper holds a $60 bill. It’s the second most common parking ticket in the city, according to SpotAngels, with hundreds of thousands of tickets issued per year, in recent years resulting in anywhere from $11 million to $18 million in fines collected annually.

Micensky isn’t above admitting that he could have avoided shelling out nearly $500 to the city over the last five years if he had been more committed to paying close attention to the sweeping schedule, which the city posts on its website along with a live tracker, which is supposed to show the real-time location of sweepers across the city (although many residents dispute its accuracy) and refreshes every 30 seconds. “I feel a little dumb for being upset about it because it’s a thing where, if I did keep an eye on my car every single day, then I would probably be fine,” he said. “I just think that’s a weird expectation. I don’t think there needs to be that many situations where you can accidentally get fined by the city.”

The origins of street sweeping in the United States can be traced to Benjamin Franklin. In his autobiography published more than 200 years ago, Franklin wrote about hiring a man to sweep a paved portion of Philadelphia, which is the first known reference to street sweeping in the country, according to research conducted by Steven J. Calvillo.

In his 2015 paper, “Street Dust: Implications for Stormwater and Air Quality, and Environmental Management Through Street Sweeping,” Calvillo, then a graduate student at Baylor University,  enumerates usages of street sweepers today and examines the effectiveness of available models. 

“For hundreds of years street sweeping has been used as a means for municipalities to remove litter, dirt, horse droppings, and vegetation for aesthetic and sanitation purposes,” writes Calvillo, who now works for TYMCO. “Before the introduction of the mechanical sweeper, street sweeping was done manually, using a broom, shovel, and either push or horse-drawn carts.”

By the late 19th century, New York City appointed its first commissioner of streets—breaking the responsibilities away from the police department where it had originally been assigned—and established “a model for other cities throughout the United States.” 

A former Civil War volunteer in the Missouri Cavalry, Colonel George E. Waring Jr. led the charge to clean up New York’s streets. Waring’s primary aim was to remove feces and garbage from streets, which measurably improved public health. According to Calvillo’s report, New York City saw a decline in diarrheal diseases and the death rate after Waring’s crews began regular cleaning. Waring reported that the most crowded, filthiest parts of the city saw the greatest improvement in diarrheal diseases.

Waring outfitted the employees—charged with a messy task—in all-white uniforms, which earned them the nickname “White Wings.” More than two decades later, when about 50 city leaders from around the country gathered in Chicago for the Conference of Street Cleaning Officials held at the Hotel La Salle, one attendee started his speech by addressing “Mr. Toastmaster and Fellow White Wings.”

The event, held in October 1919, was put on by the then nascent Elgin Sweeper company, which was named for the Illinois city where it’s been headquartered since 1914. 

In his remarks to open the conference, W.J. Galligan of the Chicago Street Cleaning Department lamented the lack of funds allocated from city hall to properly sweep Chicago’s streets. “Millions of dollars have been spent for the construction and maintenance of parks and boulevards and bathing beaches, against the expenditure of which I enter no protest, but at the same time it seems wrong to me that a great municipal activity that is so closely related to the health and the comfort of the people, should receive such little consideration at the hands of governing officials and so inadequate financial support,” he stated, according to a report of proceedings from the conference, published by Leopold Classic Library. 

“For instance, in 1916, in Chicago, we spent more for street cleaning than we spend today although our obligations today, like every other growing city, are increased, and I presume the troubles of Chicago today will be the troubles of yours and other cities tomorrow.” 

The attendees, who traveled from places like Denver, Boston, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, and New York, then spent hours discussing things like:

The efficiency at which they were able to sweep the streets—at an apparently staggering clip of 16 miles in nine hours.

MR. E. C. FOSTER: I average about 16 miles a day. 
THE CHAIRMAN: 16 miles in eight hours? 
MR. FOSTER: Nine hours. 
THE CHAIRMAN: 16 miles in nine hours? 
MR. FOSTER: Nine hours. 
THE CHAIRMAN: 16 miles? 
MR. FOSTER: Yes, sir. 
THE CHAIRMAN: That is a remarkable record.

How effective the sweepers are in various situations, like when horse droppings were a factor. 

MR. DONAHUE: I find where there is a great deal of automobile traffic that your street is cleaner than you can clean it with any flusher or any street sweeper. You take our streets in Little Rock, where we have asphalt streets, or any streets where we have automobile traffic and the dust and dirt is in from the curb about four feet. 
MR. FOSTER: Well, you get the dust and the dirt on the horse traffic streets. Then there are the horse droppings. 
MR. DONAHUE: Well, the automobiles will pack that into the asphalt so that you will have to scrape it off with a shovel. 
MR. FOSTER: I don't agree with you there.

Littering, especially among pesky newsboys.

MR. E. A. ZEISLOFT: There is one thing in this program that is very interesting to me that I would like to hear discussed and that is this litter prevention. 
CHAIRMAN GOSS: I was just going to say . . . and now the next is cooperation of citizens—litter prevention, and the cooperation of the police. Now, let's just use ten or 15 minutes on that. 
MR. ZEISLOFT: That is the most interesting part of it to me. 
CHAIRMAN GOSS: Have you something to say on that? 
MR. ZEISLOFT: No, I have not.
--
MR. CAPPELEN: The greatest trouble we have with littering streets is with newsboys, or distributors of the newspapers who throw these bundles from the cars or from their own rigs, at certain stations on the street. They are picked up by the boys and they tear the wrappings off. And I have personally gone to the newspapers and asked them to help and they said they would, but they are just as bad as the police; they won't do a thing.

And, where all the stuff goes. The answer is still true today.

MR. MAHONEY: There is one thing that we have overlooked. 
CHAIRMAN GOSS: What is that? 
MR. MAHONEY: That is the disposal of our collections of street sweeping. I do not think we have time to discuss that but I rather think that would be of interest. 
CHAIRMAN GOSS: I take it, most of it, to dumps. 
MR. MAHONEY: I presume it is too late to discuss that. 
CHAIRMAN GOSS: I understand the hour has arrived—

Today, less concerned with removing horse manure, municipalities are mostly focused on the aesthetic benefits of street sweeping. According to one study cited by Calvillo, 11 percent of municipalities with populations greater than 250,000 people said they were concerned about stormwater quality, while 36 percent of the respondents said they were concerned about cleanliness resulting from street sweeping. The same study indicated that “few cities have done research to assess their street sweeping practices or the effectiveness of their street cleaning program.”

While the technology has advanced greatly since the Conference of Street Cleaning Officials took place in Chicago more than a century ago, the city does still support its near-hometown supplier. The Elgin Pelican, the baby blue machines that can be seen rolling by, is the city’s go-to sweeper. Of the 103 sweepers in Chicago’s fleet as of the end of August, 78 are Pelicans, according to data from the Department of Assets, Information and Services.

Today, sweepers come in three main varieties: mechanical sweepers—like all the machinery in Chicago’s fleet, including the Pelican—vacuum sweepers, and regenerative air sweepers. While all the models pick up things like twigs, leaves, and fast-food containers, Calvillo’s research found that mechanical sweepers are more effective at picking up wet vegetation and large, heavy debris like coarse sand and gravel, but that vacuum sweepers are more effective in picking up smaller particles like brake dust, tire debris, and eroded rock. “Mechanical sweepers may actually contribute to storm water-related pollution,” he writes, “because the rotary action of the broom breaks down large particles to smaller ones that are then transported by surface runoff.”

An Elgin Pelican street sweeper in August Credit: Courtney Kueppers

As the sweeper moves down the street, the rotating brooms gather dirt and debris, which gets picked up and put on a conveyor belt on its way to the machine’s hopper. When the hopper is full, the machine dumps the load. 

According to documents from the Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation, the city paid $2.7 million in disposal costs in 2019 and $2.2 million in 2020, when the sweeping season was shorter because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Where does all the collected dirt and debris go?

“Usually the landfill,” Calvillo said. Chicago sweepers empty the hopper “into strategically placed dumpster boxes across the City,” according to DSS.

In the days before the streets are swept, sign hangers go block by block and affix the orange paper notices to trees, light poles, fences, or, sometimes, on a garden trellis with cotton cable cords. Despite advancements in the technology of street sweeping, the primary mode of alerting residents of the sweeping schedule remains staunchly old school. Paying the sign hangers at a rate of $21.73 per hour cost the city $1.4 million in 2019 and again in 2020, according to DSS.

“I was not very good at paying attention to those signs,” Scott Robbin, a former Chicago resident who now lives in Evanston, told me.

Several years back, Robbin checked around his neighborhood for signs that street sweeping was on the horizon before he headed out of town for four or five days. Seeing nothing and assuming he was in the clear, he was surprised to find a ticket on his windshield when he got back home.

“Maybe the day after I left, they put the signs up and I was sort of frustrated thinking that it was a little bit antiquated when we have all these digital means of keeping track of this stuff,” Robbin said. 

Robbin, a self-employed civic-minded web developer, decided to do something about it. He developed an online tool called sweeparound.us, which lets residents get calendar reminders of when their block will be swept, based on their address. Each section of each ward is swept an average of five times each year, according to DSS. 

At the start of every street sweeping season in April, Robbin works with the city to get the data needed to fuel the backend of the tool, but he’s not affiliated with the city—just a one-man operation who knows the woes of leaving your car in the wrong spot on the wrong day. 

Over the years he’s heard from aldermen who want to know if it’s OK to blast it out to their constituents (yes), individuals thanking him for building the website (“people are very very kind and friendly”), and the occasional resident who sends him an angry e-mail, assuming he’s affiliated with the city (again, no). 

“Some of [the complaints] are legitimate where maybe signs were posted late or I’m sure signs come down during rain or someone will take them down. So people will get a ticket and be very upset,” he said. 

Robbin often tries to help people get in contact with someone who can address their concerns. Like their aldermen, who are well versed in these sorts of complaints. 

“Sometimes people don’t pay attention, they don’t pay attention to the signs, they don’t pay attention to the e-blast and then after the fact if they get a ticket then they get upset,” said 27th Ward alderman Walter Burnett Jr. ”But you know, it is what it is. I mean we have to sweep the streets.” 

When his office hears from people upset about a street sweeping ticket, he said they do their best to help. “We connect them with the ward [superintendent], we make sure that they gave them the right notice,” he said. “If they did not give them the right notice, then we try to help them challenge the ticket, but it’s hard to not allow them to sweep the streets because it’s a sanitary thing in our neighborhood and for the city.”

Burnett’s ward includes parts of West Town, which was home to 112,464 tickets between 2016 and 2020, the highest number of street sweeping-specific tickets in Chicago. During those five years, the city issued about 1.2 million street sweeping tickets. Since 2016, when the city issued more than 276,000 tickets, tickets have slightly declined. In 2020, the city gave out about 219,000 street sweeping tickets, according to data obtained through FOIA from the Department of Finance.

Data: Department of Finance. Map produced by: Kelsey Rydland)

Of course, not all of the hundreds of thousands of street sweeping tickets that are issued in any given year—resulting in millions of dollars paid to the city annually—are the result of pure negligence.

Finnegan Chu, a DePaul University student, drove to campus for a work shift in May and, not seeing any street sweeping signs, parked her car outside the theater building in Lincoln Park shortly after 9 AM. When she got back to her car around 1 PM, a street sweeping ticket was waiting for her. “I was just confused and more so annoyed,” she said. 

She was determined to contest the ticket, sure there had not been any signs posted, but she knew it was her memory against the city’s word: She paid the $60.

Just like Chris Doyle had done earlier in the spring. Doyle and his wife bought a car before packing up and moving west to Los Angeles. As a new car owner, Doyle considers himself a “conscientious parker.”

“I’m always very cautious about the signs that are up,” he said. “If I’m going to take a risk, I want to know what it is and for the most part, I don’t want to take those risks. I’ll just drive for another minute and park someplace that I’m comfortable with.”

That’s what irked Doyle when he got a street sweeping ticket in April. Like Chu, he was pretty sure he shouldn’t have. When he parked that evening in Edgewater, he noticed the opposite side of the street had signs up for street sweeping. He said he confirmed there weren’t signs on the side he was parked on, went inside, and left his vehicle overnight. Unlike Chu, he contested the ticket. “Maybe I was in a petty mood, I feel like normally I wouldn’t have gone so far, but it’s pretty frustrating to get a ticket for something you don’t think you did,” he said. 

Street sweeping tickets on cars in West Town in July Credit: Courtney Kueppers

When it came back upheld, his irritation grew. He called his alderman, figuring “what are they for if not to handle stuff for you?” 

He was told his options were limited, but he could file a complaint. Doyle was on board to proceed until he realized the ticket online was accompanied by a photo taken by the ticketer. When he clicked it, it showed his car and an orange sign posted in sight. Doyle was sure it wasn’t there the night before, but he also knew his case was closed. He paid the ticket and vowed to never think about it again.

Chu and Doyle’s $60 tickets each contributed to the massive amount of money the city collects every year in street sweeping tickets alone. In 2015, the city collected $18.8 million. That same figure was $12.8 million in 2019. Then, $11.4 million last year amid the altered pandemic schedule, according to the Department of Finance. 

Through mid-November, the fleet of sweepers will continue to roll out across the city, logging hundreds of thousands of miles over the course of the season. The 243,437 miles swept last year is the equivalent of driving from New York to LA about 87 times. Despite a disruption from the pandemic, the city swept more miles last year than the previous two years, which were impacted by inclement weather.

Street sweeping is a massive logistical undertaking, a significant investment, and a source of a large amount of money collected by the city. And despite happening in plain view, some Chicagoans still feel like it is mostly discussed in an exclusive conference room, just like it was more than a century ago by the attendees of the Conference of Street Cleaning Officials. 

“If it’s something that’s organized and there are all these people involved in the cleaning of the streets that is so mythical, then there should be an easy way to notify the citizens,” John Micensky said.

Micensky did not end up spending a lot of time e-mailing city officials about street sweeping. He sent one “kind of mean e-mail,” but then life went on and, of course, street sweeping continued. Can’t fight city hall.