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A loading zone in the Loop.

A loading zone in the Loop. Motorists parking in loading zones might get caught on camera and get an automated ticket in the mail, once a downtown pilot program launches.

Sun-Times file

Downtown motorists get reprieve from automated parking enforcement, but it won't last

An automated ticketing program targeting drivers who block bus lanes, bike lanes, crosswalks or loading zones downtown has been delayed until the fall, the city said. Every offending driver gets one warning notice before being ticketed.

Downtown motorists have gotten an extended reprieve from the dramatic expansion of video surveillance and automated ticketing authorized by the City Council more than a year ago to make downtown streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists.

But it won’t last. Nor will the two-year test be shortened, simply because the program has been slow to get off the ground. In fact, it’s being strengthened.

The Council’s Committee on Pedestrian and Traffic Safety agreed Wednesday to accommodate the bureaucratic delay by changing the end date of the downtown enforcement crackdown. It now will last until two years after the first ticket is issued — once the program starts.

Originally, it was to end June 30, 2025. Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) at first proposed revising the end date to June 30, 2026, then proposed using the two-year anniversary of the first ticket to accommodate the lengthy delay.

“The Smart Streets pilot program was passed at the end of [now former] Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s term. Unfortunately, the city has not been able to get automated enforcement cameras installed on city vehicles yet, due to issues of finding a vendor,” Robert Kearney, Reilly’s chief of staff, told the committee Wednesday.

“Since those cameras haven’t been installed yet and we don’t have a specific date, we wanted to tie the two-year time line to when the first notice of violation is issued.”

Erica Schroeder, a spokesperson for the Chicago Department of Transportation, said after the committee meeting the program now will launch in the fall, though she gave no exact date.

Since the program was authorized by the Council in 2023, “The City has been engaged in research, vendor discussions, and the design of cross-departmental operating procedures,” Schroeder said in a statement sent to the Sun-Times. “While the start date is later than initially planned, we are actively working to ensure that, once operational, the pilot can provide valuable insights and, most importantly, encourage safer driving behaviors. The extension of the pilot will ensure the City can gather comprehensive data and effectively assess its outcomes.”

Kearney sounded cautiously optimistic that it won’t be long, even though he still doesn’t have “an exact time line.”

“CDOT decided to go with a vendor that the Department of Finance currently uses for software and hardware for their current enforcement program,” Kearney said.

“There is a contract amendment that [Finance] finished writing and is with the vendor right now. So we’re actually pretty close to having an agreement and getting cameras installed.”

Ald. Bennett Lawson (44th), whose North Side ward includes Wrigleyville, said he was pleased to hear it.

“This is a program a lot of us would like to see move outside of the Central Business District. Those of us with stadiums, those of us with busy areas near airports — this is a tool we should be using more of.”

A moving truck parked in a bike lane near Grand and Milwaukee avenues in 2022. (The truck's license plate has been obscured by the Sun-Times).

A moving truck parked in a bike lane near Grand and Milwaukee avenues in 2022. (The truck’s license plate has been obscured by the Sun-Times). A crackdown on such violations in the central downtown is expected to launch in the fall, and some on the City Council hope to expand it to other areas.

Sun-Times file

The amendment to include downtown parking meter violations in the automated enforcement crackdown was portrayed as a mere “trailer cleanup.”

Reilly said he mistakenly thought the original ordinance he and Lightfoot championed had included meter violations. He said he was surprised to learn it didn’t, so he fixed it.

“We know downtown that there are lots of violations for parking meters, and we have a finite number of meter enforcement agents. … There’s only eight to 10 or so for the entire Central Business District, pretty small,” Kearney said.

The two-year program calls for Chicago drivers who block bus lanes, bike lanes, crosswalks or loading zones to be nailed by surveillance cameras installed on CTA buses, city vehicles, light poles and other property pinpointed by City Hall.

The companion crackdowns, known as “Smart Streets” and “Smart Loading Zones,” cover zones that stretch from Lake Michigan to Ashland Avenue and North Avenue to Roosevelt Road.

The first two-year pilot would authorize the city to ticket registered vehicle owners by mail for parking in bike lanes, bus lanes, crosswalks and bus stops. The second would use “license plate-reading camera technology” to more efficiently ticket drivers or companies who double-park or park too long in commercial loading zones.

Cameras mounted on the exterior of CTA buses and other public transit vehicles, city vehicles and light poles were supposed to be used to record offenses. Citations would hit mailboxes no sooner than 30 days after the system is installed. Every offending driver would get one warning notice before being ticketed.

Council members were told in February not a single ticket had been issued, nor a single camera installed.

At the time, downtown Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd), who co-sponored the original ordinance, was exasperated by the lengthy delay in a crackdown his ward desperately needs as it considers “a couple of pretty big” residential projects “in an area that already experiences traffic gridlock.”

“I can’t add to that traffic gridlock when there’s a good solution to help move it along on the table that we’re dragging our feet on,” Hopkins said in February.

“Parking lane restrictions and video enforcement of people blocking the right of way is really the low-hanging fruit of resolving traffic congestion.”

Reilly blamed the transition from Lightfoot to Brandon Johnson for the delay in a crackdown he has championed for more than a decade.

A protected bike lane in the Loop, Thursday, Sept. 15, 2022. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

A protected bike lane in the Loop.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

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