Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
In Philadelphia, residents can request on-demand plowing and salting after snowfalls.
When the East Coast got pummeled by a recent snow storm, Philadelphia’s 311 call center staff settled into work amid a flurry of messages. One morning, as 40 employees reached for the phones at 6 a.m., there were already more than 300 callers holding on the line, Philly.com reported.
Wait times at call centers ticked up all along the Eastern seaboard as residents worried about navigating slick and slushy streets. (A 311 center near Bethesda, Maryland, received more than 2,200 calls within a 30-minute window.) In Philly, though, the department also fielded 8,000 requests for plowing and salting submitted through a widget within the Philly311 app.
The app has been downloaded 29,000 times since it launched in 2012, says Sheryl Johnson, operations manager for 311. Instead of listening to recorded messages before being patched through for help, residents can submit a complaint then log off right away. The process “gives users a self-service option outside of the constraints of normal business hours,” says Johnson.
The 311 team collects the complaints—which can be filed in English, Spanish, Korean, Russian, Chinese, and Vietnamese—then sends them along to the applicable partner agency, the senior operations manager Jim Morse tells CityLab. In this case, 311 passes the requests along to the Streets Department. (Clearing snow from sidewalks and steps is the responsibility of the property owner, not the city, Morse adds.) The individual agencies then decide how to prioritize the requests.
Users can keep track of the service request on their phones, too. “They don’t expect to have to make a second phone call,” Morse says.
Being snowed in doesn’t just translate to being stir-crazy, of course. Limited transit options can equate to lost wages, and may be dangerous for people who need medical care. One man in Philadelphia flagged down a reporter to complain that he hadn’t seen a single plow on his residential street.
"What if there are babies and sick people who need to get to the hospital?" asked Richie DiCredico. "I'm disabled myself and if there was an emergency, we couldn't get out."
As my colleague Aria Bendix recently noted, residents with mobility impairments may also be at a disadvantage during snowy winters, when curb cuts and pedestrian ramps remain buried. (“Even when these areas are shoveled after a storm,” she writes, “snowplows often pile the snow back on, once more prohibiting wheelchair access.”) This can make it tricky for people to maneuver wheelchairs or make it to the street for curbside paratransit pickups.
Some of Philadelphia’s narrow residential side streets are particularly difficult for snow plows to access, Morse says. Ideally, the onus wouldn’t be on residents to sound the call for assistance. But the app does give them the ability to quickly signal that they’re in need (they can even do so anonymously, Johnson adds).
In addition to requesting salting and plowing, the app offers users the choice to subscribe to blasts about dangerous weather and other conditions. “It gives them access to city government information 24 hours a day,” Johnson says.
New York City is also zeroing in on the issue of transparency when it comes to 311 complaints. City council member Helen Rosenthal recently introduced a bill to expand notifications to keep users appraised of request status. (Currently, complaints are listed as either “pending” or “closed,” but users don’t have a way to learn what action was taken.) Rosenthal’s plan would allow users to “opt in to real-time updates about their 311 complaint by email or text message,” according to a press release from her office. Similar measures are already in place in L.A., Chicago, Houston, Boston, and Minneapolis.