Sunday, February 12, 2006

Public Services and the Magic of Inconsistency

It would be simplistic to assume that all large American cities cannot possibly provide a wide array of useful and efficient public services to their residents and visitors. However, every few months one may run across some account in the media about an American city from which other large cities ought to learn. These are cities that seem to be doing "something right" when it comes to providing those hum-drum things we take for granted not because we don't really appreciate having them, but frankly, they're just not interesting services.

Whether or not services such as public education, sanitation, tree maintenance, parks and recreation and many more services are "sexy" or not is irrelevant. These are the very sort of things that people base their experience upon in living in a city. This may be painfully basic for some of you reading, but so many people don't spend even seconds dwelling on just why they are/are not happy in their city. Many Philadelphians know they enjoy life here or realize that something is missing from life here for them, but often we don't have time to ponder just why we realize these things.

So let's ponder one of the most useful services a city can provide during wintertime: snow removal. Remember, I said these kinds of things aren't "sexy" issues like building a huge glass addition onto the north side of the central Free Library or landing the 2016 Olympics, but we have to think about it.

Tonight, a report on WCAU 10 news pointed out that residents of Bella Vista were only mildly irritated with the quality of snow removal on their stretch of Fitzwater Street. I say this with a great sense of sarcasm. Bella Vista is blessed with civically-active residents so their opinions are never obsequious. The people interviewed tonight said typical TV news comments made for short attention span TV news. In regards to the street's snow removal today were lines (and I paraphrase) such as, "lousy," or "I've lived here 27 years and it's always been bad."

Channel 10 could have probably found tens of residents in other, newer neighborhoods in the City who felt the plowing they received on their streets was "outstanding" or "just fine." Snow plowing, like so many municipal services, can be inconsistent its quality and execution. So is it even really news? No.

Let's get one thing out of the way first: Philadelphia had no snow removal when any section of Fitzwater Street was laid out in the mid-19th Century. You just didn't travel other than on foot or by one miserable carriage ride during weather such as we had here this past weekend. Snow removal never became a focused public service anywhere until the "magic" of the automobile era fully-realized itself in that oh so important timeperiod called the middle twentieth century.

What's my point here? Sometimes I ask myself that as I write these posts. One idea begets another and I veer off track. Odd considering I spend five days a week helping students of mine write papers that focus on a thesis statement.

The point is that we don't have a city physically geared toward some of our public services or even utilities today. You cannot expect expeditious and thorough snow removal if you live on a street where parking is allowed on both sides and the lane for traffic is barely 15 feet wide. Ever driven a plow truck? No? That makes me, you and most of us all.

The Philadelphia Streets Department could use more funding just like a gaggle of other municipal agencies. They do their best to maintain streets in a city that has the legal right to ignore Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PENNDOT) policies...it's one of the many gifts of being a "city of the first class" under Pennsylvania law. We're the only such city in the Commonwealth.

Philadelphia is very much more self-reliant when it comes to basic public services such as snow removal. Bear with the City when big snows hit. Be thankful you live in a city where it's hard to drive because your community is so well planned for human scale and on-foot travel. Believe me, if planners fifty years ago could have found a way to demolish the north side of Fitzwater Street, for example, to widen that street to speed traffic flow or even make for easier snow plowing, they would have. I'm sure such a process would have been covered by Channel 10, too, with different people saying such original things as "terrible" and "a shame" about it.

If you find yourself stressed about poor snow plowing in your community - just take that energy and invest in thinking about how nice it will be to elect a new mayor in 2007. You do know why that will be a great thing, right?

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