On the Streets of Chinatown, Hunting for City Parking Placard Abuse

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The mayor made headlines last month when the city announced it had slashed the number of parking placards it issues by more than 30 percent. City employees put these permits on their dashboards in order to park in certain restricted zones, such as those reserved for trucks making deliveries or cars from specific government agencies. But WNYC’s Matthew Schuerman found during a walk in Chinatown that it is still hard to see any difference on the street.

Slideshow: Parking Placards

REPORTER: Chinatown is ground zero in the war over parking placards. There are a lot government buildings and the streets are narrow.

NORVELL: We have walked two blocks already, we haven’t passed a single vehicle without a placard.

REPORTER: The advocacy group Transportation Alternatives began focusing on parking placards about two years ago, as part of its mission to bring some “civility” to streets and sidewalks. Wiley Norvell directs the campaign.

NORVELL You get the feeling in downtown Manhattan that every vehicle that’s parked is basically the car of a commuter who [works in an office building] works for a government agency. Imagine if you lived in this neighborhood.

REPORTER: Mayor Bloomberg embraced the cause this January. It dovetailed nicely with his campaign against traffic congestion because government employees are far more likely than other New Yorkers to drive to work. Eliminating placards eliminates free parking. City employees have one less incentive to drive to work.

NORVELL: I was here at about the same time of year two years ago. Every car was parked with two wheels on the sidewalk so walking here and not seeing that particular pattern is encouraging.

REPORTER: But when we turned the corner onto Elizabeth Street, down the block from a police precinct house, we saw a different story.

NORVELL: On both sides of the street we see quite clearly no standing any time. That’s the most restrictive parking regulation in all New York City [it is not no parking zone] and yet we have along the entire length vehicles parked with placards in them and every single vehicle here as at least two wheels on the curb so what already is a narrow five or six foot sidewalk and this is Chinatown we have food carts out we have stores that extend out into the street.

REPORTER: The Mayor also reduced the number of different kinds of city placards, each with its own design, to five different kinds. That move was supposed to make it easier for ticket agents to tell which placards are legitimate. But nearby, Norvell pointed to a van whose driver was apparently hoping that confusion still reigned.

NORVELL: It’s parked in a loading and unloading zone even though it is not attended and it has an NYPD ball cap in the front windshield. This is a simpatico. if you were a police officer coming by and issuing tickets, maybe this is going to belong to a fellow officer.

REPORTER: Around the corner we saw some other simpaticos: one dashboard sported a laminated pass to get into Rikers Island. Another had a union card on top of some official-looking papers.

NORVELL: We hear repeatedly from comments by police officers on our website that we do not ticket our own.

REPORTER: Across the street, Bill Haigney, an EMT who works in the court system was parking in a spot reserved for the district attorney’s office.

HAIGNEY: I have union paperwork to drop off to several people here.

REPORTER: He was hoping that a placard that his union gave him would suffice. A ticket agent just happened to walk by.

HAIGNEY: Dude am I cool?

COP: You cannot park here when you finish move please.

HAIGNEY: Okay. They told me to move. Sometimes they’ll work with you, sometimes they won’t. Right now they must be having some sort of crack down.

REPORTER: On just six small Chinatown blocks, Norvell found one car with a placard parked in front of a fire hydrant; a federal court employee occupying a spot reserved for the state courts; and about a dozen cars with permits from the NYPD in no standing anytime zones. All of those cases are considered violations; only one vehicle had received a ticket. The next day, some of the same cars were parked in roughly the same spots with the same improvised credentials.

NORVELL: On the ground we are not seeing much improvement and that’s because we don’t have the enforcement yet without enforcement those 35000 people who lost their permits are going to drive anyway.

REPORTER: When asked about the number of violations, a police spokesman, Paul Browne, said in an e-mail that Transportation Alternatives –quote-may always find cars parked illegally without summonses—unquote. He noted that the NYPD had issued 2-thousand tickets and towed more than 200 cars in the last several weeks through a sting by the Internal Affairs bureau.

But Norvell believes that there are just too many unticketed violations to explain away what we saw as exceptions to the rule. And that the best way to measure enforcement isn’t by the number of tickets but by seeing different behavior on the streets.

A spokesman for the mayor, when asked if there was going to be more training or more emphasis on enforcement in the future, said no, that the police are doing a-quote-very good job.

For WNYC, I’m Matthew Schuerman.