After spending an estimated $500 on street sweeping tickets in Berkeley, a local developer decided he’d had enough.
Berkeley residents Michael Kurrels and his wife, Marine Guillanton, put their heads together and came up with a reminder service that would send text alerts before street sweeping days. They called it “Don’t fear the sweeper,” in a nod to the classic Blue Öyster Cult rock song, “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper.”
The simple interface allows users to input a street sweeping schedule to get a text alert at 7 p.m. the prior day. They don’t charge for the service.
Kurrels said, though he’s had a car in Berkeley for three years, the cleaning schedule continues to be confusing.
“It’s just very tough to remember,” he said last week. “Sometimes the third Monday comes after the third Tuesday, depending what day the month started. You think you’re done with street sweeping but then the next week you get hit again.”
Kurrels said he’s even had some months where he got two tickets in a row because he moved his car to the wrong block.
He decided the best way for him to remember to move the car was with a text reminder. Popular electronic calendar systems, such as the Google calendar, offer email reminders for events and appointments. But more email wasn’t what he was looking for. (Texts are only available through Google’s premium service, he added.)
“Originally I was just building it for me,” Kurrels said, of the reminder system. “I’m particularly forgetful.”
He continued: “I figured I’d save myself some money, and maybe somebody else would want to use it. There’s got to be some people out there like me.”
The free texts certainly aren’t the first method community members have used to outmaneuver the sweeper. In 2012, Berkeleyside reported on a newly-created website to help people track street sweeping with a map; the map no longer appears to be in service though basic information is still posted by the developer of that site. Some local residents simply put out handmade signs to help neighbors keep track, or write reminders in their paper calendars. But, for some, texts may be a good solution.
So far, Kurrels estimated about 100 people are getting the texts. He’s promoted the service on Reddit, and also on private social network Nextdoor.
“It was a big hit there. People were just very nice about it,” he said, of Nextdoor. On Reddit, not so much. “They were saying, ‘Why am I going to trust you? You just made some crappy little website. How do I know it’s reliable?'”
Kurrels said, to date, there have been no reports of anyone missing a reminder they signed up for. Someone once got an unwanted alert, but he fixed the bug that caused it.
It’s free to use “Don’t fear the sweeper,” though Kurrels and his wife do pay for the texts at a rate of about a penny each. They accept optional contributions for the service. So far, he said, a few people have elected to give, and the couple has basically broken even.
“I imagine that, if it got very, very popular, which I’m not kidding myself that it would, I would be a little bit in trouble,” he said.
While developing the service, Kurrels said he came across a 2011 Berkeleyside story in which two City Council members — current Mayor Jesse Arreguín and former Councilman Gordon Wozniak — called for better reminders from the city to help people keep track of street sweeping and escape the resulting tickets. (Interestingly, Arreguín at that time described Berkeley as “behind the curve” because it lacked a Facebook page. Nearly six years later, the city still doesn’t have one.)
Kurrels said he has been unable, thus far, to get a response from the mayor’s office about his idea despite several attempts.
Former Berkeley Councilman Wozniak observed that, since the purpose of street sweeping is to remove debris that contributes to pollution and stormwater runoff into the San Francisco Bay, the city should do what it can to help.
“The city should make a good faith effort across both traditional and digital media to alert residents to street sweeping days so they can move their vehicles and avoid tickets,” he said. “Enterprising residents who provide digital alerts to their fellow residents should be lauded and honored for their public service in helping keep our streets clean.”
Kurrels said, if he had his way, the city might simply include his website URL along the bottom of parking tickets to help people avoid more citations in the future.
“It could just say, ‘if you want street sweeping reminders, go here,’ so people have the option to sign up. I don’t think it would be so hard,” Kurrels said. “It would probably be harder to convince Berkeley to pay for it.”