Battle Against City Rat Population turns to Lidded Trash Containers in Harlem

City drivers worry that while the program may help eradicate rats, it will also eradicate 150,000 parking spots if the experimental program is rolled out citywide. The new program is experimental and will start in West Harlem in the fall bringing lidded containers to streets with schools and to all streets in a ten block area in the district overseen by community board nine.

| 08 May 2023 | 01:02

    The city announced a new front in its war on rats, launching an experiment in West Harlem to put residential and school trash in huge and hopefully impenetrable curbside containers instead of those ubiquotous, and penetrable, plastic bags.

    Rats won’t like this, the city hopes, but motorists may not either. If the pilot program proves the concept, and is then rolled out in similar form citywide, it will take away 150,000 parking spots, exacerbating the fight for parking spaces against covid-inspired outdoor dining sheds, Citibikes and pedestrian malls.

    Winning this rat race won’t be easy.

    The prevalent race of New York vermin are known as Norway Rats and, from their perspective, the streets we share with them are a bountiful smorgasbord.

    “Rats thrive and reproduce based on access to food, which is typically found within 100 feet of their nest,” the City Sanitation Department explained in a report. “In New York City, that food source sits in easily accessible bags two to three times a week in front of every property: nearly 1/3 of all residential waste is made up of food.”

    Experts say it is a fool’s mission to try to poison rats out of existence. But rat maven and Fordham Professor Michael Parsons says it may be possible to starve them out.

    Which is why the Sanitation Department is pondering the largest overhaul of trash collection since, well, let’s just say, as Parsons does in the journal Vital City, “rats have been present in New York City at least since Thomas Willet served as the first Mayor in 1665.”

    But lately they seem to be even more of a presence.

    “A study conducted by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene shows that a high volume of garbage is the top determinant of urban rat presence,” The Sanitation Department reported, “and reduction in accessible trash is the single most effective intervention to curb rat populations.”

    But reducing accessible trash is no small thought, the Sanitation Department acknowledges.

    “Large piles of trash have become part and parcel of the New York City streetscape, and dodging mountains of 44 million daily pounds of trash is a standard part of a New Yorker’s commute. It’s everywhere. Bags of trash are left out on curbs the night before pickup, proliferating the presence of rats, causing a public nuisance of trash mountains on sidewalks, and leaving behind a soiled sidewalk long after bags have been picked up.”

    Poetically entitled, “The Future of Trash,” the Sanitation Department’s report strikes an almost nostalgic tone.

    “It hasn’t always been this way; New Yorkers were required to use bins until the late 1960’s, and most Cities in the world do not allow trash bags unfettered access to the streets.”

    So it’s back to the future. The Department proposes that we put our trash in impenetrable permanent containers, instead of dumping those yummy, chewable bags by the curb.

    This being New York, a simple sounded idea is, in fact, numbingly complex.

    Replacing bags with fixed containers will require a new fleet of trucks and a place for those containers in the street by the curb – formerly called parking. Because parking is such a flash point, the size of those containers will have to be kept within limits, meaning collection days will likely have to be increased, the report made clear.

    How this will all work or how much it will cost is not something the sanitation commissioner, Jessica Tisch said she was yet ready to estimate.

    Instead the department will conduct a pilot project in West Harlem.

    The pilot program plans to place these large, lidded bins on Harlem streets at public schools and in a 10-block stretch somewhere between 110th and 155th streets.

    “This pilot will include deployment of large wheeled containers on up to 10 residential blocks and at schools in Manhattan Community Board 09,” the department explained. “this is a critical opportunity to stress test containerization in a real world setting for residents and institutions.”

    The pilot will cover 14 schools and up to a ten block zone. Residents will see large wheeled containers permanently in the parking lane on their street. Existing rear-end loading trucks will be retrofitted with mechanized tippers and collect trash six days a week instead of the current three.

    The whole challenge is so complicated that the department acknowledges it will be testing a solution, wheeled containers, that it has already concluded won’t scale up “as a residential solution beyond this pilot.”

    “Wheeled shared containers are not a reliable, scalable solution for New York City,” The report explained. “However, they are compatible with current fleet and present an opportunity to meaningfully pilot shared containerization.

    The long-term solution, fixed containers, will pose two major challenges. First, they will require a new fleet of hoist equipped trucks that is currently manufactured no where in North America. But second, and to New Yorkers far more controversial, they will take up spaces in the street currently used for parking.

    The report estimates that about 150,000 parking spaces, or about 10 percent of all street parking, would need to be devoted to trash containers. But this is a citywide average. Because Manhattan is denser, the proportion of parking spaces taken would be higher.

    In fact, Manhattan’s population is denser than any of the European cities that have successfully developed containerized trash collection, with the exception of Central London.

    More people means more trash. Which means more space for the containers to hold that trash, even if the number of collections per week is increased, the department said.

    It estimated, for example, that in Inwood a viable containerization plan would require 18 percent of existing parking spaces.

    The problem is further complicated by the many competing demands from curbside street space, from bike and bus lanes to outdoor dining.

    When the department set a cap of 25% for the proportion of parking spaces it could take for containerization it found that 11 % of city blocks, disproportiontly in Manhattan, weren’t viable at all for containerization. The Upper West Side and The Financial District were particularly prominent among these “very hard locations.”

    So it will likely be some time before the buffet is entirely withdrawn. Oh, and, yes, before the linguists write in, smorgasbord is actually a Swedish not a Norwegian word. But our Norway rats don’t seem to care.