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NYPD Gathered Millions of Dollars for Ticketing Legally Parked Cars

New York City is a complex place to drive. And when it comes to parking, there are plenty of rules and regulations to follow. It’s no wonder that sometimes people get confused and end up getting their cars ticketed or towed.

But in all of these rules, there is one thing that very few drivers seem to know. As of late 2008, in NYC, you can park in front of a sidewalk pedestrian ramp, as long as it’s not connected to a crosswalk. It’s all written up in the NYC Traffic Rules, and for more detail, take a look at this article.

The local legislation making these parking spots legal was proposed by Council Member Vincent J. Gentile and adopted by the Department of Transportation before it ever made it for a vote. However, few people seem to know about the change.

Is it a problem that drivers don’t realize that there are some extra parking spots they are now allowed to park in? Not so much. But, I’ve got a pedestrian ramp leading to nowhere particular in the middle of my block in Brooklyn, and on occasion, I have parked there. Despite the fact that it is legal, I’ve been ticketed for doing so. Though I get the tickets dismissed, it’s a waste of everybody’s time. And that got me wondering — How common is it for the police to give tickets to cars legally parked in front of pedestrian ramps? It couldn’t be just me.

In the past, there was not much you could do to stop something like this. Complaining to your local precinct would at best only solve the problem locally. But thanks to NYC’s Open Data portal, I was able to look at the most common parking spots in the City where cars were ticketed for blocking pedestrian ramps. It’s worth taking a moment upfront here to praise the NYPD for offering this dataset to begin with. Though we are behind on police crime data in the city, we are ahead in other ways, and the parking ticket dataset is definitely one of them.

What I found when I dove into the data surprised me.

To start, I found the top address where this ticket were given: in front of 575 Ocean Avenue in Brooklyn, where more than $48,000 in parking fines were issued in the last 2.5 years.

To my surprise, the spot, (or really spots since there are two ramps), are legal, since they are in the middle of the block with no crosswalk. Imagine — $48,000 in tickets at a legal parking spot, and that is just the last 2.5 years. If we had more historical data, I suspect we would see a similar story.

The next top spots on the list had the same story to tell.

1705 Canton Avenue in Brooklyn, 273 Tickets, $45,045: Legal.

270-05 76 Avenue in Queens, 256 Tickets ($42,440) Legal.

143-49 Cherry Ave, Queens, 246 Tickets, ($40,590).  Legal.

Those were of course the most extreme cases that topped the list. I started to skip down the list. This spot in Battery Park, ranked #16 on my list and the top spot in Manhattan, had 116 tickets ($19,140) and turned out to be legal. (Yellow paint has no meaning in NYC traffic enforcement, and the spot has no crosswalk)

I started to skip down the list faster and faster. Take #1,000 in my top list, at 1059 Virginia Avenue, where eight tickets had been given ($1320). It is a classic T intersection, meaning it’s legal.

See the pattern? I did. So I then selected 30 random spots that had received five or more tickets over the time period, and based on Google Maps found that all of them appeared to be legal parking spots! (Randomly selecting spots with a single ticket in the database showed some illegal spots as well, so I chose five as a conservative cutoff.)

How many spots received five or more of these pedestrian ramp tickets in the last 2.5 years? We are talking 1,966 spots that are generating about $1.7 million a year in tickets at parking spots that are mostly legal. Are all 1966 spots legal? Surely not, but the majority sure are, and many more that have fewer than five tickets are likely legal, too.

To see where the hotspots were for this sort of abuse of drivers, I mapped the top 1,000 pedestrian ramps generating parking tickets below, so you can see if you have a spot in your neighborhood that the police have been wrongly ticketing.

My challenge to you … click on a spot and then look at pictures of it on Google Maps to determine if its legal. You will most likely find it is.

Other findings in the data:

Brooklyn’s 70th Precinct seems to have the most cars wrongly ticketed, bringing in more than $100,000 in fines a year. The 77th, also in Brooklyn, comes in second:

So what is going on here? Well, it seemed from my browsing that many police officers were systematically ignoring the 2009 rule change, all across the city.

But that is not where the story ends. As mentioned, we live in a city progressive enough to release parking ticket data. I’ve repeatedly said that putting data into the hand of citizens will make our city run better and more equitably. So, I reached out to the NYPD via the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer’s Office (who is one of NYC’s earliest NYC’s Open Data champions) to tell them about the findings. They helped me get in touch with the appropriate people at the NYPD, and then I waited.

After a couple of weeks, I received the following quote from the NYPD:

“Mr. Wellington’s analysis identified errors the department made in issuing parking summonses. It appears to be a misunderstanding by officers on patrol of a recent, abstruse change in the parking rules. We appreciate Mr. Wellington bringing this anomaly to our attention.

The department’s internal analysis found that patrol officers who are unfamiliar with the change have observed vehicles parked in front of pedestrian ramps and issued a summons in error. When the rule changed in 2009 to allow for certain pedestrian ramps to be blocked by parked vehicles, the department focused training on traffic agents, who write the majority of summonses.

Yet, the majority of summonses written for this code violation were written by police officers. As a result, 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.

Thanks to this analysis and the availability of this open data, the department is also taking steps to digitally monitor these types of summonses to ensure that they are being issued correctly.”

I was speechless.

THIS is what the future of government could look like one day. THIS is what Open Data is all about. THIS was coming from the NYPD, who is not generally celebrated for its transparency, and yet it’s the most open and honest response I have received from any New York City agency to date. Imagine a city where all agencies embrace this sort of analysis instead of deflect and hide from it.

Democracies provide pathways for government to learn from their citizens. Open data makes those pathways so much more powerful. In this case, the NYPD acknowledged the mistake, is retraining its officers and is putting in monitoring to limit this type of erroneous ticketing from happening in the future.

In doing so, they have shown that they are ready and willing to work with the people of the city. And what better gift can we get from Open Data than that?

See Previous Government Changes brought on by this blog below:
-DOT Repainting Streets due to confusing fire hydrants
-TLC Reprogramming Cabs due to odd tipping algorithms
-MTA Redoing subway vending machines due to change issues

See all blog coverage on NYPD here.

Parking Ticket Data Available here, here and here.
Map made in cartodb
Analysis done in pandas with IPython.

Cross-posted from Tumblr.

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