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Chicago impounds fall to new lows, but thousands still towed for winter parking ban

Chicago's winter overnight parking ban starts Thursday
Chicago's winter overnight parking ban starts Thursday 03:08

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Two things about Chicago winters are constant: "dibs" and getting towed for parking on the wrong street.

But while dibs only happens when there's snow, for the next four months, thousands of drivers will likely get towed for winter parking whether or not there's snow.

That's been the case for the last 42 years.

Last year, the city towed more than 7,400 cars in violation of the winter parking ban, which prevents drivers from parking on nearly 100 miles of Chicago streets from 3 a.m. to 7 a.m. between Dec. 1 and April 1.

The high number is not unusual – it's pretty low historically – but what is unusual is that during the pandemic, there were fewer people getting towed across the board, including those who were booted.

The winter parking ban is about the only thing with Chicago's impound system that hasn't seen drastic changes during the pandemic.

According to city data, 2020 and 2021 saw steep declines in impounds for indebted drivers. And while a 2020 moratorium on ticketing and booting lapsed, last year still saw fewer impounds for ticket debt – or even tows initiated by police – than before the pandemic, according to a CBS 2 analysis of towing data from the city's Department of Streets and Sanitation.

Data also showed that 2020 was the first time in decades where the number of drivers towed for winter parking surpassed those towed with boots.

There were about 8,800 impounds for indebted drivers who got the boot last year, 14% of all tows. Winter parking tows made up 12% of the city's 62,000 impounds.

But in 2019, booted drivers made up 20% of vehicle impounds, while winter-ban tows were still at 12%. Chicago towed nearly 82,000 cars that year. 

That doesn't necessarily mean there are fewer people getting tickets, but it does indicate that fewer people have lost their cars to the city's tow trucks after policy changes ushered in by Mayor Lori Lightfoot and others.

Those changes were made after stories published by ProPublica Illinois and WBEZ found increased ticket fines and punitive enforcement disproportionately affected Black and brown communities on Chicago's South and West Sides.

Lightfoot, the City Council and others pushed through ordinances to reform debt-collection practices and police-related impounds, which data show had a profound effect on the city's sprawling towing program.

The city adjusted the boot period from 24 to 48 hours, reduced the minimum amount to get on a payment plan, reinstated the grace period for expired city stickers, capped impound storage fees at $1,000, and allowed those swept up in arrest-related tows to get their cars back if a court dismissed criminal charges. 

Some of those changes came out of a fines and fees task force, spearheaded by City Clerk Anna Valencia. The group issued a report with suggested reforms to the city's ticketing and parking programs, including assessing the winter parking restrictions.

Chicago lawmakers have played politics with Chicago's parking and towing for decades, and the overnight parking ban is no different.

Chicago Blizzard of '79

A vestige of old Chicago politics – the winter parking ban was implemented by Mayor Jane Byrne in 1980, after campaigning against former Mayor Michael Bilandic's failed response to the 1979 snow storm.

A snowstorm, which started New Years Eve 1979, left nearly 9 inches of snow. The city did not remove that snow fast enough, and another storm two weeks later added more, with the previously unplowed snow freezing under the additional 21 inches of snow.

Bilandic, who lost to Byrne in the Democratic primary, was blamed for the city's poor response to the blizzard that crippled the city, halting travel for cars, trains and planes. 

Byrne's plan, dubbed Snow Plan '80, established a two-prong approach: an overnight parking ban for roads deemed critical to make way for plows, and another, which would establish parking bans on every major street when snowfall was more than two inches.

Investigations by WBEZ found the city likely loses money on enforcing the overnight ban, and residents are actually more likely to be towed on days when it doesn't snow.

A separate investigation found that police were issuing more tickets for the city's two-inch rule in Englewood than the rest of the city. 

While officials like Valencia and some aldermen have tried over the years to assess winter parking restrictions, Snow Plan '80 has survived four decades and five mayoral administrations. 

The only changes to the overnight parking ban was to remove portions of it from some North Side neighborhoods in the '90s. Because of that, lakefront residents in Edgewater, Uptown and Lakeview aren't subjected to the winter parking ban.

When asked why the city continues to tow on days when it doesn't snow, the Department of Streets and Sanitation said safety is the city's top priority during winter storms. 

"The winter parking ban is in place each year on December 1 because we do not know the exact time snowy weather will take place in Chicago," a department spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement. "It is essential to keep parked cars off the streets for emergency response vehicles, and to keep public transportation flowing so residents can get to work, grocery stores and other destinations across the City."

Even so, Chicagoans are taking part in a plan that was implemented more than 40 years ago, before the city used GPS to track plows, and before forecasting technologies were able to better predict snow.

That means as of tonight, unlucky residents will have to contend with the $150 towing fee and $60 ticket.

Other cities take a different approach. Snow-packed Minneapolis will initiate parking bans when snowfall begins, then switch to alternate side parking the following day, and reopen all streets on day three.

While Buffalo, which saw six feet of snow last week, has a winter parking ban on streets with bus routes, other Western New York cities like Cheektowaga and Tonawanda opt to delay their parking bans until snow is in the forecast.

And unlike Chicago, Buffalo officials are required to revise their snow plan every year.

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