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The NYPD has issued illegal parking summonses to thousands of New Yorkers over the past seven years, the department admitted on Friday, extracting as much as $12 million from drivers who had broken no laws, mostly in lower-income neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens.
The $165 tickets were handed out to drivers who parked in front of pedestrian ramps at “T” intersections, a practice that has been perfectly legal since a rule change in 2009 designed to improve pedestrian safety and open up more parking.
The map above shows the 100 locations citywide that have racked up the most illegal tickets.
The illegal tickets were discovered by Ben Wellington, a statistics professor in the City & Regional Planning program at the Pratt Institute. Wellington analyzed ticketing data publicly available through NYC Open Data, a city-run portal that disseminates datasets collected by a raft of city agencies — the site pumps out spreadsheets detailing everything from restaurant inspection results to the city’s most popular baby names. In this case Wellington, who also runs the well-known data blog IQuantNewYork, started crunching numbers earlier this year and found that the department’s mistake was widespread.
The problem Wellington identified stems from that rule change in 2009, when the city’s Department of Transportation made it legal to park in front of “pedestrian ramps” at certain midblock intersections. The rule applies only to intersections with no traffic control device — i.e., stop sign or stoplight — nor marked crosswalk. Working with data going back to August of 2013, Wellington found what amounts to about $6 million in fines. Since the law was changed way back in 2009, the true figures are likely much higher.
Part of the idea behind the change, according to Vincent Gentile, the city councilman who pushed for it, was safety. Because traffic doesn’t slow at such intersections, crossing there is akin to crossing in the middle of any other street. And since the pedestrian ramps are unmarked, they’re often nearly indistinguishable from any other curb. The image below shows the problem pretty clearly; identified by Wellington, this corner in Flatbush, a T intersection with no crosswalk and no stoplight or sign, drew more than three hundred citations in two years, or about $50,000 in ill-gotten fines.
The rule change hasn’t been popular with everyone; some street safety advocates argue that crowding more cars on any corner just hinders visibility for pedestrians. In their view, the rule change represents just one more accommodation to drivers in the city, at the expense of the rest of us. Wellington doesn’t totally disagree.
“The rule itself is controversial, in that it claims that blocking a pedestrian ramp with a car will somehow make it safer,” says Wellington. “Which seems like quite a claim and I don’t know how much I agree with it. But the law is the law.”
And like other laws, this one seems to serve some better than others. The data follow a familiar pattern when it comes to policing in New York City, with the heaviest ticketing concentrated in low-income and minority neighborhoods in the Bronx and Brooklyn. The 77th Precinct, for example, which encompasses most of Crown Heights, issued the second highest number of illegal tickets in the city. (While we tend to think of car owners in New York as being among the wealthiest among us, that stereotype is far less true outside of Manhattan. In the outer boroughs — where there’s more parking space and less access to public transportation — drivers are far more likely to fall within the median income range for their neighborhoods, according to Planning Department statistics.)
Those statistics could reflect the well-established NYPD habit of more stringent enforcement in minority neighborhoods; the NYPD didn’t comment on that aspect of the research. But Wellington points out that the distribution of the tickets could be due to something as prosaic as street design; neighborhoods in Manhattan may be more likely to adhere to the street grid, while outer boroughs may be more likely to have the kinds of T intersections where the rule comes into play.
NYPD spokesman Peter Donald told the Voice in a statement that the improperly issued tickets were simply the result of faulty training for beat cops. While traffic enforcement officers were notified of the change in law when it occurred nearly a decade ago, regular patrol officers apparently never got the proverbial memo. As a result, they went on ticketing cars that had committed no violation under Vehicle Code 67, in some cases doling out hundreds of costly citations at the same legal parking space year after year.
“Mr. Wellington’s analysis identified errors the department made in issuing parking summonses,” Donald wrote in an email to the Voice. “It appears to be a misunderstanding by officers on patrol of a recent, abstruse change in the parking rules.”
If Wellington is the first to do a deep dive on Code 67 numbers (you can see a more complex data analysis at his blog), he’s not the first to identify the problem. Larry Berezin, a retired attorney, has been writing about the pedestrian-ramp problem for years and even mentioned the problem to the Daily News in 2011. (Wellington is the first to offer non-anecdotal evidence that the ticketing is widespread.)
Berezin runs a business helping New Yorkers challenge tickets — for a fee, of course — and regularly hears from people who’ve been hit improperly. While the news about the rule apparently hasn’t trickled down to beat cops, Berezin says the tickets can often be quashed if they’re challenged in court.
“The judges are dismissing them as long as you present the proper proof,” Berezin says. The problem is that most people never do.
And there’s not much incentive to stop faulty citations, Berezin points out, given that fines of all kinds bring in a huge amount of revenue. The city collected $565 million in parking ticket fines alone in 2015. Being that there’s no shortage of asshole parkers in New York City who deserve the fines, maybe the department can focus on New Yorkers who actually break the law.
Donald, the NYPD spokesman, said that as a result of Wellington’s analysis, they’ve sent out a notice to rank-and-file cops to make sure they’re aware of the rule.
“The department sent a training message to all officers clarifying the rule change and has communicated to commanders of precincts with the highest number of summonses, informing them of the issues within their command,” Donald wrote. It’s not clear if drivers who received one of the faulty citations and have already paid their fine have any recourse. But probably not.
NYC OpenData is an anomaly — no other city in the U.S. has such a usable and well-populated portal. (It’s also a bit of a paradox, since New York City agencies are often a maddening, yawning void of obstruction when it comes to freedom-of-information requests.)
Wellington, for his part, is something of an open-data evangelist: He sees the analysis he did on parking tickets as an almost perfect example of the benefits of open data. By making the city’s numbers machine available to outside researchers and tinkerers, the wisdom of the crowd can identify problems that city agencies might not have the resources to sniff out on their own.
“I think this moment is a litmus test for how cities can react to open data,” Wellington wrote in an email. “Is a government agency embarrassed when the public finds a way that it can function better? Or are they proud that their data release has led to new findings that can be incorporated into their operations? It’s a question of framing and it’s a necessary cultural shift as more data gets released.”