Every winter Chicago residents can count on two things – snow and having to deal with the city’s overnight winter parking ban.
This year, though, the fluctuations in the weather are proving to be just as wildly unpredictable as the city’s enforcement of the parking ban.
While every vehicle found violating the ban can be towed and ticketed -- a minimum of $230 in fines and a trip to an impound lot -- few actually are, according to a WBEZ analysis of city records going back a decade. Last year, about 53 percent of violators only got towed and dodged the $60 ticket, while 29 percent only got a ticket and avoided pricey towing and impound fees.
The reasons why have less to do with a conscious strategy from the city than plain old-fashioned luck. The uneven enforcement has cost the city over half a million dollars in potential revenue, further calls into question the ban’s supposedly critical role in helping the city clear streets of snow, and creates huge disparities in how individual neighborhoods are affected by the ban. The city’s crackdown on overnight violators is so scattershot that even legally parked cars are sometimes slapped with tickets.
Where you’re most likely to get towed, ticketed
The overnight parking ban makes it illegal to park on nearly 100 miles of city streets from 3 a.m. to 7 a.m. between Dec. 1 and April 1. Violators face a $60 ticket, a minimum towing fine of $150 and a daily $20 storage fee that starts as soon as the car is impounded.
One weekend last month, three tow trucks were waiting near Clark Street and Devon Avenue in the Rogers Park neighborhood. Minutes after the overnight parking ban took effect, the tow trucks began removing cars as patrons at nearby bars and restaurants watched.
They were about to see why this is the worst area in the city to try and flout the winter parking rules. Drivers who violated the ban last year near Clark and Devon were ticketed and towed 37 percent of the time, the highest percentage anywhere in Chicago, according to city records. Citywide, only 18 percent of illegally parked vehicles were ticketed and towed in 2016.
In Humboldt Park, however, not a single vehicle ticketed for violating the ban in the 700 block of North Kedzie Avenue was towed in 2016. But on the same street on the South Side, vehicles parked illegally from Garfield Park to Ashburn were towed and sometimes ticketed.
Ald. Anthony Beale (9th Ward), who chairs the City Council’s Committee on Transportation and Public Way, said he is concerned about disparities in how the ban is enforced, especially when it comes to low-income neighborhoods.
“There shouldn’t be any disparity,” Beale said. “If the law says you should be ticketed and towed, you should be ticketed and towed. … It should be consistent across the board.”
Even legally parked cars get ticketed
A review of city records shows many vehicles were hit with tickets for violating the overnight ban even though they were parked on streets that are not included in the ban.
That includes about 2,000 vehicles that were mistakenly ticketed between the 5600 and 6300 blocks of West Grand Avenue since 2010. Parking ban signs were accidentally placed on the street after the completion of a streetscape project in 2006, according a spokesman for the city’s Department of Transportation. He said the signs were removed.
The owners of those vehicles will receive notices in the mail about obtaining a refund, said Sarah McGann, a spokeswoman for the city’s Streets and Sanitation Department, which enforces the ban.
She said the department is working to prevent any further mix-ups.
“While the situation on Grand Avenue was an isolated incident, the city began a comprehensive review of snow routes and parking bans several months ago to ensure that all signage is placed on the most essential routes,” McGann said in a statement.
City officials said motorists who believe they were mistakenly given a ticket can call the city’s Department of Finance about whether they qualify for a refund.
The reason why some vehicles only get tickets and others only get towed depends on the circumstances of how they were caught, McGann said.
There are two ways a ban violator could get a ticket: either from a police officer or a city worker who rides along with tow truck drivers.
Theoretically, vehicles that are towed should be issued a ticket, but most are not. Out of the 8,799 vehicles towed last year, only 25 percent were ticketed.
McGann said some motorists might only get ticketed because they move their vehicles before a tow truck arrives. McGann also said towing crews might not get to illegally parked cars before the ban ends at 7 a.m.
“Our crews should ticket and tow, but if there were instances in the past where there was only a tow, it may have been because the intention is to clear the routes,” McGann said in an email.
Costing the city
While the ban’s uneven enforcement has helped -- or hurt -- some drivers, it cost the cash-strapped city more than $554,470 in potential revenue in 2016 because not every vehicle was ticketed and towed.
Had the city issued tickets to every car towed, it could have raked in more than $379,000. On the flip side, if every ticketed car had been towed, the city would have taken in more than $175,000 after contractor fees.
Under the city’s contract with United Road Towing, the private tow company takes nearly 70 percent of the $150 towing fine and the first day’s $20 storage fee.
Molly Poppe, a spokeswoman for the city’s Office of Budget and Management, said the purpose of the winter overnight parking ban is not to raise money for the city.
“The City utilizes the winter parking ban as a tool to help us more efficiently plow streets -- it's not a revenue generator,” Poppe said in an emailed statement. “We are not focusing on lost revenue, but instead on making sure streets are safe and passable for motorist in the winter.”
A previous WBEZ analysis of city data found that the winter parking ban is not necessary for snow removal because the city already bans parking on major streets if 2 or more inches of snow accumulates.
Ald. Walter Burnett (27th Ward) said he plans to look into problems with the winter parking ban as chairman of the council’s Committee on Pedestrian and Traffic Safety. He said his constituents do not complain about the ban, but he doesn’t expect that to be the case in areas like Rogers Park.
“I imagine most of the people who live in those areas, people aren’t happy about it,” he said.
How we did this
This is the second story WBEZ has published that examines Chicago’s 37-year old winter parking regulations. The first story looked at the effectiveness of the ban.
This analysis was made using data obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests to the city’s Department of Streets and Sanitation, Department of Finance and Department of Administrative Hearings. The Chicago Police Department, Department of Transportation and Office of Budget and Management were also contacted.
Utilizing parking ticket data, we isolated overnight parking ban violations and geocoded them using the open source Data Science Toolkit. Then, utilizing towing records, we filtered overnight parking ban tows and joined the two sets of records together on date and license plate numbers. We determined enforcements on and off the overnight ban route, which highlighted the tickets on Grand Avenue that the city said it will refund. Find the data set here on Github.
The city said that motorists who believe they are eligible for this refund should call the Department of Finance at (312) 744-7275.
Elliott Ramos is a digital editor for WBEZ. Follow him @ChicagoEl.