Updated 2:08 p.m. Dec. 10, 2019
Chicago’s winter parking ban took effect early Sunday, and 248 cars were hauled to the impound on the first night, according to the city’s Department of Streets and Sanitation.
The ban prevents drivers from parking on nearly 100 miles of city streets from 3 a.m. to 7 a.m. between Dec. 1 and April 1 — whether or not there’s snow to be plowed.
A new WBEZ analysis of city data shows that dozens of vehicles towed in the ban regularly don’t make it back to their owners. Last year, more than 100 drivers couldn’t afford the tow and storage fees and their cars were sold. Since 2009, the city has sold more than 1,200 vehicles that were taken in the winter ban.
The city maintains the ban is necessary for public safety.
“The parking ban ensures that critical roadways remain clear for salt spreading plows during winter storms. During a snowfall, a build-up of snow next to parked vehicles on these routes can impede the flow of traffic and cause dangerous conditions for motorists,” Jordan Troy, a mayoral spokesman, said in a statement.
But there’s one clear winner: A private towing contractor with a history of scandals and long-running connections to some of Chicago’s most powerful politicians.
Chicago pays United Road Towing about $130 for every car towed in the winter parking ban, or 87% of the city’s $150 tow fee. Unclaimed cars get sold at scrap prices to the company, typically for amounts under $200.
Chicago’s winter parking rules were created in 1980 by the late Mayor Jane Byrne, and is still enforced to this day.
The nearly 40-year-old policy has never been studied (some tried), and the only time it was updated was to remove portions of it from some North Side neighborhoods in the ’90s. Those lakefront neighborhoods have mostly white residents and higher rates of income.
Meanwhile, the winter parking ban remains a cash cow for United Road Towing.
According to invoices obtained through public records requests, United Road Towing’s most profitable months are during the winter because the ban drastically increases the flow of cars into city impound lots – jumping 30 percent in December – compared to November.
Over the past decade, nearly 100,000 cars were towed for the winter ban, with the city paying out millions in tow fees, not including the scrap sales of unclaimed vehicles.
Chicago is the only major U.S. city that has a blanket snow parking ban. Even snow-packed Minneapolis and Milwaukee avoid such policies.
The ban is implemented within a 4-month period, regardless of snow, but the city has seen snow before and after those months.
Chicago’s weather-related ticketing and towing has also led to logistical headaches with enforcement – with disparate impacts on low-income and minority communities.
A WBEZ investigation last year found that police on the South Side issued more tickets for unshoveled sidewalks or violating the city’s ban when there are two inches of snow, which is the city’s other winter parking measure.
Revising the winter parking rules was one of recommendations made by the fines and fees task force report issued last December by City Clerk Anna Valencia.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot has made several monumental reforms to the city’s ticketing and debt collection practices, including a current debt-forgiveness program on city stickers, ending the practice of license suspensions for parking tickets, and easing payment plans for low-income residents.
This winter will be the first for the newly elected mayor, who resolved a teachers strike and got her first budget approved.
But time will tell as to whether Chicago’s winter policies can keep pace with its changing weather.
Correction: An earlier version of this story included duplicate records for 2019. There were 6,192 vehicles towed and 44 sold that year from the winter parking ban.
Elliott Ramos is WBEZ’s Data Editor. Follow him on Twitter at @ChicagoEl.