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Saturday, July 20

Gapers Block

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The car impound near the 1000 block of north Sacramento Avenue is hell on a Sunday morning, particularly before April 1st, when the posted no-parking-for-snow bans expire. You know those ridiculously misleading signs that feature a large snowflake and say, "No Parking, October 31 thru April 1, OR WHEN SNOW OVER 2 INCHES"? They are a great haul for the contracted tow company, that, knowing the weekend is when people are out partying late and tourists and suburbanites are in heavily parking-restricted neighborhoods, has trucks out towing all night. Drop by one weekend evening in March and witness the precision with which tow trucks come in and out all night, pulling cars.

If you do, you may want to pay a follow-up visit the next morning, when a line will stretch out of the little wooden shack they call an office down into the street with people waiting to get their cars back. The convoluted process to get your car out — which involves two separate lines (one to claim the car, and one to pay), a requirement that the person who owns the car be present (a big problem for families or rental agencies) — can take as long as two hours (I once spent four hours trying to get a car out of the lot, a nice way to spend a Sunday).

A friend is currently fighting City Hall over an incident wherein a city crew, working on a street overnight, decided to temporarily nail a metal "NO PARKING – TOW ZONE" sign to a high construction awning rather than put up the temporary cardboard ones; he parked his car and got towed. When he returned, he finally saw the sign; but when he returned with a camera, it was gone. Who knows whose cousin has the towing contract for that block at Streets and Sanitation, but this is outrageous.

How about street cleaning signs that slip down trees or hang way too low or, as we've all seen, don't get posted until the very last minute?

Or the story of a friend of mine who got three tickets in one day — one for a bumper hanging over a yellow strip, one for parking in an unposted street parking zone, and one for getting to his car two minutes after his meter, which cost a dollar an hour, had expired. That's $150 in tickets in one day — a whole day's pay for him.

Which brings us to the real injustice of an obscenely restrictive parking regime designed not to keep streets clear, but to generate revenue: for too many Chicagoans, the tickets are a serious financial burden, while at the same time public transportation service is sorely lacking.

Approximately 17 percent of Chicago's households — or about 175,000 households — live at or near the poverty line, earning at the high end $350 a week. What a coincidence — that's $50 a day. A parking ticket for getting to a meter a moment too late can wipe out a day's worth of pay.

And although much of the $210 million the city sees from parking violations probably does come from the more well-heeled and commuters, the way such tickets can disproportionately harm the poor and working families is obscene. Take a drive through a working class neighborhood in this city some time and tally up the number of Denver boots you see on cars; compare with the number you see in Streeterville or Lakeview.

Cities love generating revenue off of parking tickets because it is cost-efficient for them; for every $1 they spend collecting the fines, they get $5 in revenue. That would be peachy if the City of Chicago were a corporation, but it isn't. It is our city and is supposed to serve us. People wouldn't be pouring hundreds of millions of dollars of parking fines into the city if there were a public transportation system that actually worked.

Whereas a round-trip bus ride from Cragin/Hermosa to the West Loop — say from the Cicero block of Grand Avenue to Halsted and Jackson — would cost a Chicagoan $4 and take no less than an hour and a half including waiting time, a drive would probably take no more than a total of half an hour or 45 minutes round trip, costing about $2 in gasoline, assuming average fuel efficiency at current gas prices. Both the opportunity cost and the actual cost direct the sensible person to drive. But of course, the overly restrictive parking regime in this city makes finding a legal parking spot nearly impossible. The cost of commuting to work via CTA is a serious monthly expense for many Chicagoans, especially lower-income people who may work two or more jobs or second or third shifts that make bus transfers unattractive. An additional $4 trip a few times a week can add up to serious dollars.

Yet another way to screen those who can't afford it out of the central business district of the city.

Excessive parking restrictions and enforcement will not discourage people from driving until there is a reasonable, cost effective alternative to driving. If you make it nearly impossible to park for people who have to drive to work, or drive to maneuver the city, those parking tickets essentially become an additional tax, and an ultra-regressive tax. If somebody from a poverty-line household gets even six tickets a year — about $300 a year if they're paid on time — they face fines equivalent to approximately $1,200 for somebody earning $60,000. If that $60,000 individual was spending $1,200 a year on parking tickets, they would be justly furious — the difference is, they could afford to switch to using the CTA despite its cost. Some are not so lucky.

There is no doubt that parking restrictions can free up streets and lessen congestion (and pollution) and they should be enforced. But the more the city sees parking tickets as a dedicated, infinite source of revenue (throw up some more signs, increase the cost of metered parking, and we can get an extra $20,000,000 for my pet project!), the less incentive they have to invest heavily in public transportation, and the more the city will expand restrictions out into neighborhoods that are already over-restricted.

With people shunning the inefficient CTA, retailers and restaurants have to scramble to accommodate customers who are driving. Thus chain retailers and restaurants, that can afford to buy extra property for parking lots, have an advantage over the little guy; and our city is blighted by acres of unnecessary parking lots. When Western Avenue turns into Randall Road, we'll think this nifty source of "free" revenue has taken a disastrous toll.

The goal should be a city with a public transportation system that makes driving a luxury, not a city that punishes you for leaving the neighborhood.

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the pet / August 22, 2007 7:55 AM

Oh, the steaming pile of horseshit that is the Chicago Department of Revenue.

Two months ago a friend of mine receives a “Notice of Determination” in the mail, informing her that since she’s been caught by those red light cameras on three separate occasions and ignored all the notices, she’s now way past due, owes the city $540, and that her car is going to be booted at any time.

She never got any notifications.

She took a day off of work to try and straighten all this out.

Nobody would believe that she never go the notifications - she was told that since they never got any pieces returned, that she must have gotten them.

Apparently the city sends out notifications via the US Postal Service. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but we’re the worst in the nation as far as mail delivery service.

One pissy worker for the city told her that she must have known about those violations, because in the midst of those red light violations, she had a parking ticket that had been paid.

Yep, she was told that since she paid a parking ticket, she MUST have know about the red light violations. Nevermind the fact that my friend kept telling this woman (who must have had a rather large and pointy bug up her ass) that the reason why she paid the parking ticket was because it was affixed to her windshield, so she knew about it.

And then, when it comes to paying tickets, you can’t pay on an installment plan unless you owe LESS than $500 in fines and then you have to pay off a percentage of that $500.

Now, fighting the city and the Post Office has been a giant drain of energy on her. She can’t afford to take more time off work to fight this, she can't afford her car getting booted, and she can’t afford a lawyer. The only thing she can do is pay the city.

And that really sucks, because her and her husband both work very hard - they have bills, student loans and a car note to pay off.

It’s like the city makes it so that nobody can fight back.

Pedro / August 22, 2007 8:56 AM

Not to incite illegal behavior... but I think it would be glorius if people started to tar and feather the collection agents.

JohnnyQ / August 22, 2007 10:17 AM

Imagine a city that is not handing out inflated contracts to the connected (slap on back, wink, wink), desperately trying to attract the Olympics, and infested with corrupt officials gobbling up and spewing out our tax dollars (hired truck, millions to legally represent the abusive cops). Imagine how much nicer this machine would be...maybe then we wouldn't have to be the economic machine to feed all the deficits.

irishpirate / August 22, 2007 10:54 AM

Many good points.

One point for the first "commenter". Tell your friend NOT to run red lights and she won't get the non appearing in da mail tickets.

So endeth the lesson.

Andrew / August 22, 2007 11:12 AM

I hate parking tickets as much as the next guy, but I have to point one thing out: there's no way for a meter reader to know how long a meter's been run out. It may have been two minutes, but all the meter says is that it's expired. You shouldn't, anyway blame the ticket person for what they don't -- and can't -- know.

Ramsin / August 22, 2007 11:20 AM

Andrew- True, but a $50 fine because your watch runs five seconds slow per minute is absurd. The person writing the ticket isn't at fault, it's the system, really.

Jeremy / August 22, 2007 11:56 AM

A watch that runs 5 seconds slow per minute loses 2 hours per day. I'd buy a new watch, if I were that person.

But beside that point, the highly restrictive parking situation in the Loop just lines the pockets of the garages. I used to work at Columbus and Wacker. On the lowest level of Wacker, near the auto pound (how ironic), the street was lined up and down with meters. One day, all the meters were bagged, then all the heads cut-off and no parking anytime signs were installed. I guess revenue was a little down at the Millenium Park garage down the street.

Andrew / August 22, 2007 11:57 AM

Maybe they could add a negative count on meters, too -- showing how long a meter's been run out. Then the ticketer would know it'd only been a minute or two since the meter ran out.

Of course, that would rely on the meter reader being kind and giving you the benefit of the doubt. Which isn't gonna happen. Sigh.

wc / August 22, 2007 12:23 PM

The Chicago ticketing system has made me a paranoid recluse who is too afraid to park my car anywhere on earth.

anne / August 22, 2007 3:38 PM

And never mind trying to figure out if 2 inches of snow has fallen and if you should move your car. I wrote a while back about the City's lack of clear communication on that matter.

Chef / August 22, 2007 5:35 PM

I’ll stir the pot a little bit here…this issue is not about parking tickets. That is the lipstick and make-up you are putting over a larger issue.

On that note, Ramsin…let’s talk about the real issue.

Your articles usually deal with political corruption, a breakdown in government, or government agencies being run improperly…the ticket issue being the most recent. I can respect that.

You have also talked of expanding the government, having the richest people in society pay higher taxes, and having many government run programs.

In all of the gathering and compiling of your findings, I need for you to answer me something.

What government funded program/agency is run properly?

I only ask because you seem to want it both ways. You point out how horribly our government is run…yet your solution seems to always be a bigger government. I understand people “wanting it both ways”…but can you understand how people see what is going on and want a smaller government?

It seems you are aware of how a government does run…do you know of any aspect of any level of the government that is run properly?

Further, what is the ratio of “properly ran government programs vs. programs that are not properly ran”?

Ramsin / August 22, 2007 6:38 PM

Fair enough point. But again, the problem is not the fact government and its programs, but rather the way government behaves—due to the policies it implements.

Policies come from “policymakers” within government. High ranking bureaucrats and their masters, elected officials.

Now, who are the masters of the elected officials? The people? If only. The masters of the elected officials are “special interests.”

“Special interests” are dominated to a dangerous magnitude by the business (for-profit) community. The financial and organizational resources that can be mobilized by the business community and its associated organizations dwarfs those of non-profit interests such as labor unions, environmental groups, and civil rights groups.

And the masters of the business community are the very wealthy.

That is the problem with government. So is the solution to reduce government so that vital programs it provides are run for-profit instead? Or is it to eliminate those special interests that currently direct government policy into the mischief and waste we hate so much?

Do government programs run properly?

Comparatively, sure, most of them do. How is Chicago government compared to Newark? Or Baltimore? Or Youngstown? Or Providence? Or Mogadishu? Or St. Petersburg?

Ramsin / August 22, 2007 7:28 PM

Shoulda said "Camden" not "Baltimore." Sorry Fitz.

Josh / August 22, 2007 7:30 PM

Uh....walk? ride a bike? The reason you pay to live in the city is to be close to things. CTA is a steal (compare to cab fare or the cost of keeping a car including the ocasional ticket). Sure we could devote more money to capital improvements to make it faster, more on time and better smelling.

An to your point about opportunity cost, Econ 101 also teaches us all that the one thing that folks near the poverty line have going for themselves is low opportunity cost for what it is worth. That's why poor people wait for the bus and rich fokls drive Hummers to work at the Merc.

The big problem you are bringing up is the "inconvenience" this is causing you. Driving is a privilege and the city's enforcement helps keep it that way. I'd love to see that Foie Gras ban enforced as well!

"With people shunning the inefficient CTA, retailers and restaurants have to scramble to accommodate customers who are driving"

I don't buy this point. Retail and restaurants areas near transit are doing better than ever.

Ramsin / August 22, 2007 7:47 PM

Uh...I do? I don't actually own a car anymore. But...uh...a lot of people do? And...uh...they have to have cars? Because...uh...they have families? And...uh...other responsibilities? Or...uh...they work somewhere that needs a car to access? Or...uh...they need it for work itself?

As for Econ 101, that may be true, but it doesn't really apply to situations where they have a car available to them. The opportunity cost would be on the side of driving because the time you save: but the fact that it is in fact more expensive to take the CTA, means that driving is the much more sensible choice.

Because driving has both the qualities necessary: quicker AND cheaper than the other viable options.

As for parking affecting your ability to compete with competitors, the point is that in a city where public transportation continually degrades in reliability and cheapness, the NEED for parking will increase, tipping competition in favor of larger organizations.

Ramsin / August 22, 2007 11:28 PM

That came across as ruder than I meant it to. That "Uh..." thing really irks me for some reason though.

Josh / August 23, 2007 9:51 AM

I'll retract my original 'uh'. Sorry for the rudeness.

Driving still isn't cheaper. Everybody loves to bash CTA, but few are willing to stand up and recognize that we have a pretty complex and extensive transit network that is one of the city's main assets. You can pretty much walk four blocks in 90% of the city and catch a CTA bus. Pay more for your housing and you can live near the El. Want to drive? Great, pay the price.

Initial car cost, insurance, maintenance, gas, parking fees, parking tickets, city stickers. Cars just don't add for many people. Cars are a luxury item, even for people with families. And we're not even talking here about the negative societal costs of driving (pollution, human car-nage, decreased human contact).


Sounds like a very Schaumburgian perspective on life. CTA and the fabric of the city give us the freedom to reject this worldview in whole or part.

Our governments do a lot to keep the price of driving artificially low, which ends up hurting places like Chicago where you can live without a car (but you still pay to subsidize them). I'm all for raising the gas (or even the sales) tax to improve CTA. Anyone else care to opine about that?

Since this is supposed to be a politics blog ( I enjoyed reading RC's posts during the election) I think it refreshing that taxing car use is no longer the "third rail" it used to be.

See you in the bike lane.

Nuke LaLoosh / August 23, 2007 2:40 PM

Josh and other bikers of the world -- I hear you. I'm a CTA-er 7 days a week; I almost never drive and when I do am carpooling. My wife bikes to work 3-5 days/week, and we bike/walk to most of our errands on the weekends -- I even have the super-big "granny-cart" for walking my groceries back from Trader Joe's.

That said, I am very fortunate to live in a neighborhood on the North Side that is fully serviced. I am a short walk from the bank, the hospital, a farmer's market, groceries, fun times, and we are very CTA-connected. That is in no small part because I have a decent-paying (not great) middle-class job with health insurance; so does my wife.

Given this, let me offer some "new math."

Rent/property values within a realistic walking distance to the CTA train line > the budget of many working people with families, especially on the West and South Side;

and knowing that

CTA bus lines = suck!
(frequent waits of 20-40 minutes each way, some don't run all night)


Car = ability to get your kid(s) to the doctor

Car = ability to get to work in (Chicago's frequently) inclement weather

Car = difference between getting to work in 30 minutes rather than 1 hour and 30 minutes.

Ramsin's point is that working-class urban dwellers get drilled the hardest -- he's not talking about the LPDBs (Lincoln Park D-bags) and Trixies you seem to be complaining about.

Our mass-transit system is semi-extensive. You are golden if you want to go to and from the loop, to the lake, to and from the metra-connected suburbs from downtown, and lots of places on the North side. If you live South or West . . . or going from the West to the North or South . . . and you don't want to drive . . . especially when you need to take young or old family members with you . . . good luck.

Young, healthy bohemians can make it year-round on just their wits and their bikes. Older folks and working-class folks with families often have a real need for their cars.

I agree with your ultimate point -- the real problem is we need to triple the mass-transit services in this city. We should expand mass transit to the South, West, and connect them around so you don't have to connect through the downtown to get to other parts of the City.

I once suggested that the City completely eliminate street-parking on major streets (about every 4-6 blocks or so -- you know, California, Western, Ashland, etc.) and designate those former "parking" lanes for bus-traffic only.

Then run a big, clean, safe bus, every 10 minutes, 24/7/365 on those lanes. The busses will be timely and reliable because they wouldn't be caught up in the same lane as other traffic.

People won't need (nearly as many) cars if we have mass transit that is truly clean, timely, safe, and widespread.

Rick / August 23, 2007 11:32 PM


Buddy, pal, listen to me. We're all very glad and impressed that you've transcended the Schaumburgian theory of mind. Your Phil 101 professor will be pleased.

However, you seem to be forgetting that not everyone lives off the brown line. There are large expanses of this city miles away from any el train and people do, in fact, live there.

People do need cars in this city. Yes, you're right: it is great that Chicago has something of a public transit system and this prevents us from relying on cars the way the suburbs do; but to assume that people who drive are doing it for the luxury is kind of rude.

Buses in this city are a joke. (I relied on the Lawrence route for three years and got into a considerable amount of trouble for "dependability" at my job. I was leaving an hour and half before my shift started. The drive would have taken 30 minutes.) Bikes are a great alternative if your job doesn't mind you showing up sweaty and smelling like a foot every morning (mine does) or don't have any passengers.

Basically, I'm trying to point out that the major flaw in your argument is that there are demographics in this city that are different from the one you fit into. The city's new method of tax collection may not effect you or your bikers'-rights! pals, but there are thousands of people being taken advantage of.

Ramsin / August 23, 2007 11:41 PM


Nuke said it better than I could. If you own a car and live in an under-serviced neighborhood, public transportation is often a "luxury."

I love the CTA. I take it as often as possible, and since shedding the car I had for three years, have been much happier.

But it is pretty expensive for its irregular service. The buses in this city, especially outside of the well-served neighborhoods, are often late and run slow. If you have access to a car, you will use it because it can save you literally hours in some cases.

My biggest concern when I got rid of my car was my ability to get to my family quickly if there was an emergency. Because waiting for a bus for 40 minutes isn't an option. That's the "responsibility=car" equation.

The buses that serve my neighborhood are pretty reliable, so I can take them to work; but if they were constantly late, I wouldn't want to risk my job. This is especially true for people whose work isn't downtown in an office, but some other party of the city, and it is the type of work that requires you to punch in, and being late is not an option. Nurses, for example, work on extremely tight schedules and being one minute late a few times a year can lead to termination. Would you want to risk that on a CTA bus that is often twenty or thirty minutes late? Would you want to accept the reality of sacrificing an extra hour out of your day to get to work because CTA is inefficient?

That's the problem. I never alleged that the solution was to make parking less restrictive; like I said in the article, the solution is to make public transit better so people treat driving like a luxury.

Ramsin / August 23, 2007 11:49 PM

By the way, Nuke, I like your idea of dedicated express bus lanes. In my obsession with the CTA (see this insane article) I always wondered if you could do this, but never considered pushing all parking off those streets. It probably wouldn't effect commerce too much (in fact, it would probably improve it extent; I bet commercial rents on those streets would skyrocket, though), the problem would be loading and unloading deliveries.

It's a good idea, though. I feel like some city has something similar--or am I remembering that weird bus lane in "downtown" Denver?

bs / August 24, 2007 12:19 PM

A great place to see weird express bus lanes in action is Pittsburgh. They run buses sort of like rapid transit in some places, and they often have paths running parallel for walking and biking. It's rad.

I have zero sympathy for people getting tickets. Boo-hoo.

Nuke LaLoosh / August 27, 2007 1:28 PM


Thanks for the nod of agreement.

Your point is a good one -- I don't have a suggestion that reconciles my suggestion with the obvious problem of loading/unloading deliveries for businesses on those streets. Most City alleys are just not wide enough to accommodate the big trucks.

Does bs know how they deal with this problem in Pittsburgh?

Unfortunately, such a discussion is academic anyway. As Ramsin points out, so long as the City gets enormous revenues from strict parking rules, a plan like that one will never be introduced.

BTW, Ramsin, nice column.


About the Author(s)

Ramsin Canon studies and works in politics in Chicago. If you have a tip, a borderline illegal leak, or a story that needs to be told, contact him at

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