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Were San Francisco’s streets dirtier in 2022?

A dumpster along Fulton Street with San Francisco City Hall in the background | Paul Kuroda for The Standard.

An overflowing trash bag in Bernal Heights. A pile of old wood in Ashbury Heights. An abandoned bathroom sink in Nob Hill.

These are three small incidents that contributed to the massive heaps of trash that landed on San Francisco’s streets and sidewalks in 2022. The city marked a new low this year in its long-running battle to keep itself clean.

The Standard analyzed the most recent data available and found that San Francisco’s Public Works Department received more than 126,000 requests for street and sidewalk cleaning between January and September 2022—the highest number recorded for that period in the past decade.

The requests aren’t a perfect indicator of street cleanliness since a pile of trash only shows up in the data if someone bothers to pick up their phone and report it. But given the city has about 815,000 residents, the six-figure calls for cleanup indicate SF has some pretty dirty streets and a significant portion of the population that is tired of garbage showing up on their block. 

In fact, about a quarter of San Francisco’s registered voters cite trash as one of the things they like least about living in the city, according to The Standard’s June 2022 poll. And more than one-third think street cleaning needs more funding from the city—not surprising given the number of calls for street cleaning tripled between 2014 and 2022.

SF's Public Works Department received a request to clean up this pile of trash in Bernal Heights. | SF 311 Database

Public Works is in the process of a trash can redesign that may help reduce litter, but many have balked at the five-figure price tag on the prototypes and the seemingly lackluster performance of the pilot program. In the meantime, some city residents have taken it upon themselves to clean up their neighborhoods.

The monthly breakdown of SF cleanup requests shows a peak that extended from the summer of 2021 through the beginning of 2022. Since then, the number of complaints has subsided slightly.

The city’s goal is to respond to street cleaning requests filed through the 311 system within 48 hours in at least 95% of cases. Public Works hasn’t even come close to meeting that goal since the volume of requests skyrocketed in the second half of 2021. That’s due to low staffing levels, according to a report from the SF Controller’s Office

Whether Public Works will be able to claw its way back to a better response time in 2023 is yet to be seen. The department has been awash with scandal and turmoil for years. This August, its former chief was sentenced to seven years in prison for taking bribes from the city’s trash hauler, Recology. That company has been forced to pay millions back to the city for overcharging customers for years.