Snow or no snow, winter parking ban leaves Chicagoans out in the cold

Harsh winters are a way of life for Chicagoans. They bundle up, hunker down and call dibs.

But one city policy claimed to prevent winter blues for residents seems to be having the opposite effect.

Since 1979, Chicago has enforced a widespread winter parking ban from 3 a.m. to 7 a.m. on nearly 100 miles of pavement. The city imposes these restrictions between Dec. 1 and April 1, and motorists can see their vehicles ticketed, towed and impounded for violating it.

City officials defend the policy, saying it ensures plows and emergency vehicles are able to move freely during and after a snowstorm.

But a WBEZ investigation tells a different story. It seems the city is less concerned about accessible streets than it is collecting millions of dollars in ticket revenue.

Drivers are slapped with a $150 towing fee and $20 per day storage fee after having their car hauled off in violation of the overnight parking ban. Many also receive a $60 ticket.

But reporters found thousands of vehicles violating the ban were towed on days it didn’t snow during the winter of 2014-2015. Not a single city snowplow was active in December 2014, for example, yet the city still towed more than 3,400 cars for violating the overnight parking ban that month.

In fact, “you’re least likely to be towed on days when it actually snows,” according to WBEZ’s analysis of city data.

City officials’ contention that this policy is crucial to clear streets appears dubious.

Reporters highlight one illustrative blizzard in 2015, the largest November snowfall in more than a century. As nearly a foot of snow fell on city streets over the course of three days, plows from the Department of Streets and Sanitation were active, and the department successfully cleared Michigan Avenue for the Magnificent Mile parade.

However, the winter parking ban was not yet in effect. So it seems the city operated just fine without it.

But the city, as well as towing companies, benefit from the status quo.

United Road Towing received $114.71 for each car it towed during the overnight parking ban in 2015.

The towing company has donated nearly $30,000 to Chicago or Cook County politicians since 2006, including $7,000 to political funds controlled by 13th Ward Alderman Ed Burke.

In the past, some City Council members have tried and mostly failed to overturn the overnight parking ban.

Former 46th Ward Alderman Helen Shiller succeeded in lifting the ban from some areas in the 1990s, according to WBEZ. But a 2014 effort to remove the ban entirely or study its effectiveness fell flat, as did an attempt from 26th Ward Alderman Roberto Maldonado last year to mandate notifying drivers before the city towed a vehicle.

More City Council members should consider giving their constituents greater peace of mind when it comes to parking during the holidays, and move to plow over this outdated policy once and for all.

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