By Scott Etkin
Saturday morning’s flurries gave a glimpse into the heavier snowstorms likely to come later this winter. When these storms do eventually happen, the New York Department of Sanitation (DSNY) will be largely responsible for keeping New York City’s streets usable.
Every winter, New York’s Strongest use their muscle to clear snow and ice from 19,000 lane-miles of roadway. This past November, DSNY Commissioner Jessica Tisch gave a view inside the massive scale of this operation, how it works, and what residents should know.
Laying down salt is DSNY’s “first line of defense” against frozen roads, said the Commissioner. DSNY has 42 salt sheds across the city and more than 700 salt-spreading trucks, which can coat the asphalt with a mix of rock salt and calcium chloride, an additive that remains effective when temperatures dip below 24 degrees Fahrenheit. They also sometimes use salt brine — a salt and water mixture — which has proven to be effective and less environmentally damaging than salt.
During a snowstorm, DSNY can mobilize up to 2,200 garbage trucks with plows affixed to the front. Snow is removed by the same trucks that collect garbage, which is why garbage collection can be delayed when there’s a snowstorm.
For speed and to avoid the plows getting caught on cracks in the asphalt, the plows are always slightly elevated from the ground. That’s why it’s normal to see a thin layer of snow on streets that have been plowed. “Even after the street is plowed you won’t see blacktop right away. That’s very important to remember.” Tisch said.
Also, to maximize efficiency, plows are always positioned to face to the right — no matter which direction the truck is driving.
After the snow is piled up, two kinds of scoopers break up and move the piles. The mounds can then be transported to one of DSNY’s seven snow-melting vats around the city (there’s at least one in each borough). These gigantic machines can melt 60 tons of snow per hour.
Commissioner Tisch also addressed some misperceptions about DSNY’s snow removal operations: namely, that streets are prioritized for plowing into primary, secondary and tertiary roads. “This is a thing of the distant past,” she said. “All streets in the city are on a route — plows run the route again and again. Streets are not prioritized,” she said.
Residents can track the movements of salt spreaders and plows throughout the city using PlowNYC, a live map maintained by DSNY.
The commissioner pointed out that it’s illegal for people to “throw” snow back into the street when they are clearing out snow from the curb or parked cars. Instead, “snow may be moved against the building, to the curb line, or areas on private property,” according to a previous “snow alert” from DSNY.
Perhaps the biggest difference in DSNY’s operations this year will be the addition of more bike-lane plows. DSNY is increasing its number of these narrower vehicles from 30 to 47 in order to cover 165 miles of bike lanes. Still, road clearance is prioritized over bike lanes in order to enable access for emergency vehicles.
DSNY is fully staffed for the winter, with more than 140 workers. Winter is the toughest time of year for the workforce, said Assistant Chief Christian Hourihan, due to the long hours and inconsistencies of forecasts. Prepping DSNY’s snow operations is “a year round thing for us,” he said.