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Operation Broomsday: Street sweeper MF Broom returning to bike lanes this spring, city says

mf-broom-dpw-street-sweeper.jpeg
Courtesy
/
Richmond Department of Public Works
Vassar Sumpter, Richmond’s street cleaning operation manager, said MF Broom’s disappearance is due to a combination of things — like staffing and a difficulty getting replacement parts.

It’s been out of sight for several months. VPM News found out why.

In 2022, Richmond launched a street sweeper for bike lanes. A citywide naming campaign christened it MF Broom, after rapper MF Doom, who died two years earlier.

But MF Broom hasn’t been seen on city streets for months.

Vassar Sumpter, Richmond’s street cleaning operation manager, said MF Broom’s disappearance is due to a combination of things.

“First thing, the most important one, is we suffered from equipment shortages, just like everybody else,” he said. “For example, one of our hardware items are the brooms, the actual brooms that sweep up the debris. There was a nine-month delay in getting those brooms.”

Sumpter said their most recent shipment of replacement brooms were delivered in March. But brooms need to be replaced regularly, as do other parts of MF Broom, like the vacuum head that scoops up small debris.

“It's a very interesting piece of equipment in the bike lane,” Sumpter said about the sweeper, which cost the city more than $80,000. “It's only four feet wide. It's a little better than five feet tall.”

Other larger sweepers can cost up to $300,000.

Sumpter said because MF Broom cruises down bike lanes, his team has taken extra safety precautions, like posting signs letting cyclists know there’s work being done.

“It's definitely a different type of equipment to learn,” Sumpter said. You definitely have to be more aware of traffic, cars and bicycles and folks walking … There’s a lot of safety with it.”

Another explanation for the sweeper’s lack of visibility during the past several months, Sumpter said, was staffing. People trained to drive MF Broom left or were promoted, and others who worked supporting the sweeper — extra drivers and the prep crew — were also sparse.

Sumpter said it can take up to eight weeks to train new drivers.

“It's kind of a tag team thing, in that, we have to utilize leaf equipment to assist the bike-lane sweeper; we also have to do some vegetation removal,” he said. “So, it's a little bit more complicated than regular street sweeping, because we're in a confined space.”

During 2022, MF Broom cleaned 350 lane miles, Sumpter said. But this year, that number dropped down to 120 lane miles due to the issues. Sumpter didn’t offer an estimate for the number of miles that might be cleaned during the remainder of this year.

“Once we got to this year, we realized that we weren't going to be able to go full throttle, and that it was probably a better idea to double down on our training,” Sumpter said. “We initially started out with two folks on this piece of equipment, and now we have four.”

Sumpter, who said he’s an avid bike rider, said when MF Broom does reappear, cyclists will be able to check when lanes will be cleaned using the RVA311 app. Currently, they can use the app to report debris in the lanes.

“We monitor that on a daily basis. So, that's the best way to let us know,” he said. “But I'll be honest with you, the citizens have been outstanding, the folks who live on the bike lanes, they have done a really good job of helping us.”

MF Broom is set to reappear sometime early next year, Sumpter said.

“Starting in the spring will give us time to give an accurate schedule and get the bike lanes up to par for regular maintenance,” he said.

In the meantime, those new MF Broom drivers are also being trained on using leaf removal equipment and on preparing to remove other vegetation from roads.

Ian M. Stewart is the transportation reporter and fill-in anchor for VPM News.