Adding to the City’s Coffers, One Ticket at a Time
The most-ticketed block in New York City is 14th Street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues.
The number of parking tickets issued citywide has surged 42 percent since Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg took office.
The day after Thanksgiving was the most-ticketed day of the last fiscal year.
And, no, Virginia, there is no five-minute grace period.
These facts are among the findings of an analysis by The New York Times of how the city enforces its parking laws. While the city has worked to explain the tactics it uses to curtail crime, its strategy in issuing parking summonses remains a poorly understood area of law enforcement and one that, even when done fairly, makes people cringe.
But through interviews with experts and a review of nearly 10 million parking tickets issued last year, a portrait emerges of how the city, increasingly starved for revenue, has energetically raised money and moved traffic by increasing the number and cost of tickets it issues each year.
Since Mr. Bloomberg took office, the city has hired 793 more traffic enforcement agents and doubled some penalties, collecting 64 percent more in fines in fiscal year 2008 than it did in 2002. During the last fiscal year, it collected more than $624 million in parking fines — more than the city spends to run the Department of Transportation.
City officials say their parking enforcement is not driven by revenue goals. But City Councilman Vincent J. Gentile said his district in southwest Brooklyn has been so overrun by traffic agents that it is hard to conclude otherwise.
“It’s a growing recognition that the city is using parking enforcement as a means of revenue generation, not as a means of traffic management or safety management,” he said.
The data show that the day after Thanksgiving has become a special time for more than retailers. On Nov. 23, 2007, enforcement agents papered the city with more than 41,000 citations, almost double the daily average.
Part of the increase is explained by ramped-up enforcement associated with the need to keep traffic moving during the holiday season. But it is also a day when drivers forget that parking regulations remain in force. Half of the tickets written that day last year were for failing to move cars in accordance with alternate side of the street rules.
“A lot of people think it’s a holiday,” said Andre T. Strothers, a former agent who set a record that day last year when he issued 227 tickets in a five-hour streak across Brooklyn. “They stay up late the night before.”
The surge of ticket writing has swept away some of the civilities of life in New York, like the five-minute grace period that was once part of the city’s official enforcement policy. Police officials say there is no longer a grace period, just a suggestion to agents that they use common sense, but many motorists still believe one exists. At least 276,000 drivers found out sorrowfully last year that the tradition is dwindling; they were ticketed for violating alternate-side parking rules within five minutes of the time the rule went into effect.
In fact, a full 10 percent of the tickets for alternate-side parking violations were issued within two minutes of the time that the rule went into effect. Of those, some 28,000, or 2 percent of the total, were issued exactly on the hour.
“I walked out at 11 o’clock on the dot one night, and my car was already being ticketed and towed,” said Gus Markatos, who manages the Donut Pub on West 14th Street. “There’s no courtesy anymore.”
Traffic agents may be emboldened in part by the precision of their equipment. The city has furnished all traffic enforcement agents with handheld computers that spit out more tickets in less time and with fewer errors than handwritten tickets.
The device scans a vehicle’s registration sticker for some information and the agent, using a stylus, fills in the rest.
Police officials say that the time on the instruments is synchronized with the atomic clock when they are plugged into a docking station at the end of the day. But a television reporter for Fox 5 News, John Deutzman, was able to establish, on one day this year, that some of the devices were more than two minutes fast. And Sanford F. Young, a lawyer, successfully fought a ticket by questioning that level of accuracy.
“I parked a car on First Avenue at 7:02 p.m.,” Mr. Young recalled. “I knew that from my cellphone. I was going to dinner at Petaluma. When I got back, the ticket was on my windshield, and it was for 6:59 p.m. They claimed I parked somewhere between one second and 59 seconds too soon. Come on — give me a break!”
The judge in the case sided with Mr. Young, and the ticket was dismissed.
Police officials said the time on the ticketing devices is now coordinated with more than one source.
The city says the vigor of its ticketing corps has not been a result of requiring agents to fill quotas. That word is never even whispered, agents say, and officials say that productivity is measured not by the number of tickets written, but by “individual job performance.”
Ross Sandler, who was commissioner of transportation from 1986 to 1990, said, “What we always said was we never had a quota, but we always had a goal.”
To achieve those goals, the parking czars within the Transportation Division of the Police Department have adopted several strategies.
Deputy Inspector Michael W. Pilecki, who oversees the 2,529 traffic agents, about half of whom write tickets, says the core mission is not revenue, but keeping traffic moving and reducing the number and severity of accidents.
“What we ask our agents to do when they’re out in the field is to be particularly aware of those types of violations that really impede the flow of traffic and increase the likelihood of accidents,” he said. “We want them to focus on things such as double parking. Vehicles parked in bus stops. No standing. Obstructing a traffic lane. Obstructing a bus lane. Those are the biggies.”
Though more than 30 different agencies can issue parking tickets, about 80 percent are written by traffic agents, who work out of 12 traffic commands across the city. Five are in Manhattan, where most tickets are written.
Traffic agents patrol congested areas on foot, covering about 10 to 15 blocks a day. Less busy areas are patrolled by car. And agents are deployed primarily from early morning to midevening, with a small crew working overnight.
“We call them the nighthawks,” Mr. Pilecki said. “They address conditions around bars and clubs and dance clubs and things of that nature.”
The most prevalent reasons for tickets were expired meters and alternate-side violations, which together accounted for nearly a third of all parking summonses last year.
The agents get their marching orders at roll call, when they are dispatched according to a monthly patrol guide with input from supervisors who canvass the city daily. Additional instructions come from weekly TrafficStat meetings, which are modeled after CompStat, the data-tracking program the city uses to fight crime. Michael J. Scagnelli, the Police Department’s chief of transportation, leads the meetings.
“Chief Scagnelli will say, ‘Let’s not forget why we’re all here: We’re here to move traffic, move traffic, move traffic, reduce injuries, move traffic, move traffic, move traffic, reduce accidents, move traffic, move traffic, move traffic, reduce fatalities, move traffic, move traffic, move traffic,’ ” Mr. Pilecki said.
With these mechanisms, combined with community complaints, Mr. Pilecki and his commanders adjust postings as parking problems are corrected or as new hot spots emerge.
One focal area for enforcement last year was 14th Street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, which was the most-ticketed block in the city. It is one of the places in the city where parking is forbidden after 11 p.m.
City officials say the rules are set to discourage clubgoers drawn to an area’s night spots, and many nights on 14th Street, the tow trucks show up with precision. Tow truck drivers call it “disco towing.”
“They sit right there and wait for people to park,” said Carlos Martinez, a bouncer at Honey, a restaurant and bar on 14th Street, pointing to a truck. “Once people park, they just tow their car.”
Nothing about such a process makes the traffic enforcement agent a particularly popular figure, and agents are increasingly the targets of verbal and physical attacks.
“Every day, you go out there naked — without a gun — in the back of your mind is, ‘Is this my day?’ ” said Robert Cassar, the former president of Local 1182 of the Communications Workers of America, which represents most agents.
Critics of the city’s enforcement policies say that some agents, under pressure to produce numbers, write bogus summonses by, for example, “dumping” them repeatedly on abandoned cars. City officials say such instances are isolated. But the data do present some curious situations, like the 267 tickets, all unpaid, issued to a 1989 Nissan that was parked near the Brooklyn Navy Yard for the past 17 months. Most of the tickets were issued by a police officer, although several traffic agents had also left summonses on the car. The fines now total $32,964.
City marshals and sheriffs are authorized to tow cars with at least $350 in delinquent parking tickets. But this car was tagged repeatedly for the same three or four violations, even after it had two flat tires and no visible license plate and was parked about two blocks from the Brooklyn Tow Pound.
After The Times began asking about the car, it was towed away by the police.
The city’s aggressiveness in ticketing has not gone unnoticed in neighborhoods like Riverdale, in the Bronx, where a dozen residents claim a traffic agent issued them phony double-parking tickets. Some said they were out of the country at the time the tickets were written. James Huntley, the current president of Local 1182, defended the agent and said she remained on duty. The police would not comment.
Councilman Gentile held his own forum in Bensonhurst several weeks ago to air complaints from residents of his district.
“We have traffic agents who get bused in by van each and every day to these communities,” he said. “They’re deployed like an army regiment.”
Police officials said that vans are routinely used to transport agents, and a police captain who attended the meeting defended the ticketing.
But Ron Galluccio, a retired Navy veteran who walks with a cane, told the gathering that the agents had overreacted. He got one ticket, he said, while dropping off his wife in a bus zone. Another summons was for parking in a spot that he said should have been permitted because he has a handicapped license plate. And a third occurred last winter when he double-parked during a snowstorm because another vehicle was blocking his driveway.
“I said, ‘Look, I can’t get in my own driveway,’ ” Mr. Galluccio said at the meeting. “I said, ‘I don’t deserve a summons.’ ”
His argument had no effect, he said. “I had to pay the ticket.”