Correction, 6-27-22: The story has been updated to clarify that WBEZ’s analysis of vehicle speeds focuses on drivers ticketed for traveling 11 mph or more over the posted limit. The data show little change in the average speed of those drivers since cameras first went online in 2014; however, the number of tickets for speeding at this rate has decreased over time. We removed references to traffic safety impacts since those were not included in our data analysis. A 2022 University of Illinois Chicago study found evidence that speed cameras reduced traffic fatalities and serious injuries, based on analysis of Chicago’s speed camera data from 2016-19. We also added additional data visualization to provide more context.
Last March, Chicago deployed its robo camera system to ticket drivers who sped 6 miles or more above the limit, lowering the threshold from the 10 mph trigger set by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel nearly a decade ago.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot argued that the new 6 mph bar for speeding near schools and parks would make the streets safer in a city where pedestrians, including children, have been injured and killed by careless drivers.
But the change has angered residents — like Sherry and Hector Hoyos, who were ticketed twice while taking their daughter to the emergency room for complications due to a chronic disease. The change also prompted some city aldermen to try and reverse the lower threshold, arguing that the move is a cash grab and that the cameras penalize Black and brown neighborhoods more.
Lightfoot supporters on the City Council blocked the motion from coming up for a vote last week, but the debate is far from over. Supporters say they plan to introduce the motion as soon as July’s council meeting. In the run-up to the vote, the mayor called the aldermanic proposal “unconscionable,” citing a 2022 University of Illinois Chicago study that found cameras helped reduce the number of fatal and severe-injury accidents by 15%.
After the threshold went down from 10 to 6 mph, a WBEZ analysis found the number of tickets issued by the city increased dramatically. During the new program’s first full year, the city issued more than 2.34 million speed camera tickets, a roughly 400% increase from the most comparable time period — March 2018 to March 2019, before the pandemic hit, when driving volume had not yet plummeted. In the year during which the change took effect — 2021 — the number of traffic fatalities actually increased to 173 (compared to 151 deaths in 2020 and 118 in 2019), according to figures cited by the Lightfoot administration.
WBEZ’s analysis of more than 10 million records from 2014 to early 2022 also shows:
The program has been a cash windfall. The changes have brought in an estimated $105.9 million since March 2021, topping even the city’s own projections that the program would yield $95.5 million. These numbers are estimates that do not take into account hefty added late fines if tickets aren’t paid in time. Asked to comment on WBEZ’s estimates, the city did not provide an immediate response.
The average speed of the fastest drivers — those who were ticketed for driving 11-or-more miles per hour over the limit – did not change dramatically. The number of tickets issued for this violation did decline gradually over time.
Two of the five top-grossing cameras are located in predominantly Black areas of the city. Three others are situated on the Northwest Side near freeways and expressways.
The data don’t show who is getting the tickets or where they live. But urban planning experts who’ve studied speed camera data from previous years say that cities often place cameras around freeways and expressways, where Black and brown neighborhoods tend to be.
“It’s starting to become financially crippling. It’s a problem,” said Aurelius Raines II, a Hyde Park resident who keeps getting tagged by cameras during his commute to teach physics at a Chicago charter school. He said he still owes the city between $400 and $500.
Despite the ire of residents, Lightfoot has said she wants to stick to a lower threshold for tickets and warns changing it would have consequences.
“By law, the revenue generated from these violations is used to fund public safety efforts, infrastructure improvements and safe passage workers near parks and schools,” Lightfoot said in a statement. “Passage of this ordinance would mean cutting these vital programs by nearly $45 million. We are all responsible for protecting our children, pedestrians and bikers. It’s a matter of life and death — people need to slow down.”
The tickets keep coming
The lower speed threshold has been an ongoing frustration for the Hoyos family.
While driving her 18-year-old daughter, Mia, to the University of Chicago Medical Center for a surgery, a speed camera flagged Sherry Hoyos’s car for going just over the limit.
The mother’s first priority was getting her daughter, who suffers from Crohn’s Disease, to the hospital, said Hector Hoyos, Sherry’s husband. When the family got a $35 ticket in the mail some weeks later, they figured it wasn’t worth fighting. But when it happened again — again en route to the hospital — Hector decided enough was enough.
He tried to fight the ticket on a technicality, but the administrative hearing officer ruled against him. What happened next may be unique to pandemic-era court hearings: According to Royos, the officer hung up the Zoom call before the father was done making his argument. Royos never had a chance to explain.
“He just cut me off,” Royos said. “It was super frustrating. I tried to call back into the virtual call, but they closed it out already. I reviewed the video over and over again. It just looked like she was regularly driving, but it’s just really hard to prove based on the video.”
In early June, a group called the Citizens to Abolish Red Light Cameras met at the Logos Baptist Assembly between Roseland and Morgan Park to renew their efforts to fight Chicago’s speed camera program. Several supporters sat in the pew as the group’s director, Mark Wallace, addressed those in the room and the faces on a nearby screen who were attending the meeting virtually. Wallace spoke passionately about the need to scrap speed cameras and reverse the lower threshold — and to start healing the many damages done to people struggling in poverty.
Advocates have touted speed cameras as a “race-neutral” alternative to police stops. But after examining data from 2016 to 2019, University of Illinois Chicago researchers found that the city’s use of photo-enforced ticketing tends to reinforce racial and economic disparities because of the location of cameras and added late fees. The study, which is often cited by the mayor, didn’t examine the safety or racial impact of the lower speed limit, but one of the authors said she suspects the change would not alter that trend.
Researcher Stacey Sutton, who co-authored the study with urban planning professor Nebiyou Tilahun, found that majority Black and majority Latino neighborhoods have the highest rates of tickets despite the city’s 160-plus cameras being more or less equally distributed across city neighborhoods.
“This is tantamount to waging war on the poor at the worst possible time, and they are being hit the hardest by these decisions,” said Wallace, who has been working with South Side Alderman Anthony Beale to repeal fines for lower 6 to 9 mph violations.
Reached last week after the floor vote on raising the threshold was stalled, Wallace sounded frustrated. The next step is to regroup with Ald. Beale. “We’re not gonna quit,” he said.
Roseland, the neighborhood that surrounded the group’s meeting place, is not far from one of the most productive speed cameras in the city — at 127th Street near West Pullman and Calumet Park. It’s the fourth most productive camera, issuing close to 110,000 tickets from March 2021 through mid-April, netting an estimated $3.79 million before late fees. The median household income in West Pullman is little more than $45,000 per year, according to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.
Lin Whitaker, a Roseland resident, said a lot of her family lives in the suburbs and they “dread” coming into the city for fear of being ticketed and owing a fine. “Every time they come, somebody leaves with a ticket,” said Whitaker. “They often say, ‘I haven’t had a ticket in years but when I come into Chicago.’
“It adds up,” she said. “Definitely it’s a hardship. I’ve had my share of the tickets, without a doubt. And what bothers me most is I don’t see any development as a result of all that money. South Side and West Side should be booming with development. Where is the money going? What is the money being spent on?”
The city declined numerous interview requests with Lightfoot and Transportation Commissioner Gia Biagi for this story. In an email, Department of Finance spokeswoman Rose Tibayan responded to only one of eight questions from WBEZ — a question about speed cameras’ impact on majority-Black and Latino neighborhoods.
“From day one of Mayor Lightfoot’s administration, reducing harm caused by city fines and fees on Black, Brown and low-income residents has been one of the highest priorities,” Tibayan wrote. “Traffic violence is a major issue in Chicago, and across the country, and the speed camera program is helping to keep our most vulnerable residents safe.”
City comptroller Reshma Soni added to the statement sent by Tibayan that the lower speed limits were meant “to encourage a change in behavior and get people to slow down to reduce fatalities. However, we don’t want those who are least able to afford fines to be negatively impacted, which is why we have enacted fines and fees reforms allowing motorists to take advantage of terms to help alleviate any hardship.”
Those programs include some debt relief for red-light and speed camera tickets issued to city residents whose income falls below 300% of the federal poverty line.
A brewing battle
The issue caused a dramatic showdown last week in Chicago’s City Council, with city officials testifying that a repeal of the lower ticketing threshold would blow a hole in the budget and that money from the initiative helped pay for vital neighborhood public safety services.
Aldermen backing the repeal said they have been besieged by calls from angry residents about the program and worry about the impact on lower-income residents.
Several weeks before the vote, Beale, one of the council’s loudest critics of the lower threshold, said in an interview with WBEZ that the program disproportionately impacted people of color.
“Ticket revenue has over tripled since the number has been reduced from 11 [mph over the limit] to 6,” Beale said. “You’ve got over $96 million in revenue that has been generated thus far. People are just being constantly drained and hit upside the head.”
Alderwoman Jeanette Taylor of the 20th Ward — home to two speed cameras that together netted close to an estimated $2.45 million in 2021 — also criticized the program, saying it “does nothing but tax people who are already poor.”
“It was definitely about money,” she added. “I never thought we should have implemented it in the first place.”
The UIC researchers who have studied the camera system said it is likely the newer ticketing rules reinforce the existing racial inequities in ticketing.
Those without the means to pay “get caught in this cycle of debt and the potential loss of their car, and the possibility of going to bankruptcy,” Sutton said. “All of those outcomes are borne disportionately by low-income and Black, brown residents of Chicago.”
That’s exactly what happened to Orlando Jones, 66, who lives in the predominantly Black neighborhood of Bronzeville.
From city sticker fines and penalties stemming from outstanding speeding tickets, Jones said he ended up filing for bankruptcy after accruing thousands of dollars in debt to the city. Taking care of his elderly mother on an annual income of $44,000 while working at St. Mary’s Hospital, Jones said “he’s barely making ends meet.”
“I’m caught between a rock and a hard place at this point in time, and I don’t know when they’re gonna let people know about this pilot program,” Jones added, referring to the city’s trial debt forgiveness program for people who file for bankruptcy. “I’m 66 years old and I don’t have a whole lot of time left. I just gotta take it as it comes.”
For now, he’s waiting to hear back from the city about his eligibility. In the meantime, he lives in fear that his car could be booted — turning a 25-minute ride from his Bronzeville home to his job at St. Mary’s Hospital into a two-hour commute on the bus.
Michael Gerstein is a freelance writer based in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter @mikegerstein.