Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot recently announced plans to create new powers for city ticket writers to mail tickets to drivers who are pulling away without requiring them to place a paper ticket on the vehicle or hand it to the owner. We believe this is counterproductive, and a dangerous step in the wrong direction.
This policy proposal was cheered by bicycling and public transit advocates who are understandably frustrated by cars pulling into, idling in, and otherwise blocking bike and bus lanes. We appreciate and share this concern. Bicyclists deserve to have clear paths and safe lanes. Safety must be a top priority in our city plans and designs. Bus riders should have fast, reliable service. Alternatives to carbon-spewing modes of transportation are also critical for sustainable and healthy communities. Unfortunately, we cannot ticket our way to safety or reliability.
On their own, tickets are doing a ton of damage to our communities already. Many parking tickets carry hefty fines. Blocking a bike lane carries a financial penalty of $150, which doubles to $300 for individuals unable to pay right away. That would be devastating to most monthly budgets, particularly for a low-income family. Chicagoans owe $1.8 billion dollars in uncollected ticket debt.
Non-payment carries severe consequences. At the Jobs Council, we hear regularly from people with thousands of dollars in parking tickets that have been piled on vehicles, especially in communities of color. Thousands lose their vehicles, depriving families of transportation, and often their only asset. Chicago deactivates ride hail drivers by the thousands over debts owed to the city. The Northern District of Illinois is the Chapter 13 bankruptcy capital of the country, largely because of Chicago’s addiction to excessive vehicle tickets (parking, city sticker, snow plowing, etc). The consequences of vehicle tickets in the region are monumental, and they are part of the story of Black outmigration, unemployment disparities, health and life expectancy disparities, and the difficulty of many people of color to build wealth.
This is why we’ve spent years working with the Transit Table coalition to end driver’s license suspensions for failure to pay parking ticket debts, and to reduce the excessive tickets in the first place.
We share many goals and values with cycling and transit advocates. But we need them to know: if you cheer for more tickets, this is the cudgel you’re cheering for. Active Transportation Alliance has acknowledged this issue, which we appreciate. Beyond the harm, there’s good reason to believe that tickets won’t even increase safety or bus service. A frequent parking violator with access to money, if they paid their fines, could block a bike lane 100 times and never face any of these consequences. On the other hand, a couple of tickets could send a low-wage worker in a heavily policed neighborhood into a spiral of debt that drags them and their whole family into poverty. We know because many of the people seeking workforce development services in the region have lived through some version of this story.
Tickets and punishments won’t create safer streets for bikers or smoother bus service. Better design of our public spaces will. An extensive study of 12 metro areas released last year lifted up physically protected bike lanes as the biggest predictor of safety. Covering the report, Streetsblog also noted:
Researchers found that painted bike lanes provided no improvement on road safety. And their review earlier this year of shared roadways — where bike symbols are painted in the middle of a lane — revealed that it was actually safer to have no bike markings at all.
“We found they’re worse than nothing. You’re better off doing nothing,” Marshall [one of the study’s authors] said.
This is where we have obvious agreement with groups like Active Transportation Alliance in the call for a Safe Streets Fund to invest in our infrastructure.
Beyond safety, physical barriers protecting bike lanes also offer critical information and limitations to motorists. For better or worse, motorists don’t always know or understand biking related traffic laws. We can work together to promote more public education so people understand how to interact with various vehicles in traffic–but $150 tickets are the worst possible public education plan.
Good design promotes safety, eliminates ambiguity, and prevents undesirable traffic flow without relying on punishment after the fact. For example, the group People for Bikes offers numerous examples of physical barriers that both protect bike lanes, and clearly tell drivers where they’re not welcome:
While not as common, similar physical designs are also possible for bus lanes. The New York City Department of Transportation has shown interest in the idea. Protected bus lanes can also be combined with bike lanes, as proposed by the Portland Bureau of Transportation:
Relying on expensive tickets also creates a potential incentive for public agencies to continue profiting off of bad design instead of investing in infrastructure changes that would reliably decrease non-compliance (and therefore revenue). Even if never consciously pursued, these incentives are dangerous. Chicago already raises 7% of its revenue from tickets, and we’re one of many American cities addicted to fines and their tempting promise of easy revenue. The City shouldn’t make more profits when more people do what we don’t want them to do.
Irrespective of this specific example, these increased ticketing powers are a step in the wrong direction. People deserve more and better notice of their tickets, fines, fees, options, and consequences. That includes paper tickets. Lack of information has been a constant issue in our work with community members impacted by this system. Further diminishing notice requirements risks putting more debts and punishments on disproportionately low-income Black and Brown drivers who then face increased risks when interacting with law enforcement.
It’s worth noting that Mayor Lightfoot’s proposal is only possible because of a dangerous new change in Illinois law passed by corrupt former state Senator Martin Sandoval. Last year, he led passage of SB1939 into law, without public debate, in the final hours before the session ended. One small part of that law eliminates the right to a paper vehicle ticket in Illinois, allowing ticket issuing agencies to mail notice without first having to place a ticket on a car window or hand it to a driver. The Governor signed this into law on June 28, 2019, effective immediately. It’s not clear lawmakers had time to understand the implications of this section.
Given our perspective on the devastating consequences of excessive tickets, fines, and fees, we are deeply concerned about any effort to provide residents less information about their tickets, records, and obligations. That includes the Mayor’s proposal to give virtual tickets to Chicagoans without the clarity of a bright orange ticket.
We urge Chicago Alderpeople and residents to oppose proposed ordinance O2020-803. We welcome continued discussion of alternatives to tickets, fines, and fees to increase bike safety and bus service, especially ideas rooted in restorative justice, and community voices.