While they might seem miles apart, they’re very much interconnected: Parking tickets and poverty. The former may be feeding off the latter like a parasite, yet there’s not a whole lot of conversation about it beyond the mix of shrugs, the sound of tickets being ripped up in anger, and the quiet epidemic of low-income people faced with suspended driver’s licenses, lost wages and high stress because of it.
While Philadelphia remains, steadfastly and not so proudly, the poorest big city in America (brought to you by consistent Census Bureau data), there’s that niggling question of how much the city’s Commonwealth-owned and infamous Parking Authority contributes to that. It’s difficult to find the direct data for it; the Authority is not all that transparent and, frankly, it’s probably not all that concerned. But there is data we can extrapolate from.
Combing through the city’s own collected data sets on parking violations, we find an estimated 7.5 million tickets issued since 2012. That’s astonishing, to the naked eye, for a city population that’s barely 1.6 million. But, it’s a weirdly expected draw for a parking authority that enjoys national notoriety for its aggressive dark art of citation. What’s more fascinating, and troubling, is the impact ticket-writing for non-moving violations could be having on the city’s low-income residents, particularly those concentrated in mostly black and brown neighborhoods.
Looking at various mapped data—from zip codes to median income to pockets of residential areas by race or ethnicity—it appears that how many parking tickets you receive is determined by where you live and how much you make … and, oh, the color of your skin, too. There are 14 different zip codes that have issued 100,000 or more parking tickets between 2012 and 2016. Yet, funny enough, nearly 80 percent of those zip codes are places where the poverty rate is 20 percent or more and the neighborhoods are mostly black and “of color.”
The PPA has issued an estimated 7.5 million tickets since 2012. That’s astonishing, to the naked eye, for a city population that’s barely 1.6 million.
Zip codes like 19121, in lower North Philadelphia, raked up over 120,000 parking tickets since 2012, while battling a poverty rate of nearly 40 percent. Go to upper North Philadelphia to explore low-income and heavily black neighborhoods like 19140, 19141, and 19144 where the poverty rates range (officially) from 20 to 36 percent, and ticket writing is epidemic: Since 2012, 184,000 tickets have been issued in 19140, with its 36 percent poverty rate; 179,000 tickets have been issued in 19141 with its 20 percent poverty rate, and 105,000 tickets have been written in 19144.
Other zip codes like 19121—with a poverty rate of 39 percent—have been battered with 120,000 parking tickets since 2012. And in 19123, where the poverty rate is 32 percent, the number of tickets has exceeded 200,000. In 19104—struggling with a 33 percent poverty rate—there has been an inexplicable 708,000 parking tickets written in that four-year period.
Yet, wealthier and/or whiter zip codes don’t have to worry about parking tickets so much. Zip codes like 19111 and 19149, where poverty rates are below 8 percent, have seen only 57,000 and 78,000 tickets respectively in that same period. You also have a better chance of avoiding parking tickets in zip codes like 19118—which enjoys a 1 percent poverty rate—where there were only 66,000 tickets written. In 19154, there were only a little over 1,300 tickets issued; in 19150, there were only 5,400 tickets—these are places where the poverty rates are barely 4 percent and 8 percent, respectively.
The evidence shows that, in Philadelphia, the poorest and blackest residents are essentially paying for the bulk of PPA’s budget. It’s something missed in the nonchalant conversation around parking tickets which blames those who receive them; if you get a ticket, it’s pretty much assumed it’s a result of your idiocy or inability to read deliberately misleading parking signs.
But unpaid parking tickets can cause problems for low-income residents who can’t afford to pay them. If you have a suspended registration or license from defaulting on “six or more tickets or citations from the Philadelphia Parking Authority,” how are you getting to work (at your low wage gig) and paying your rent and bills if SEPTA can’t get you there? Are you going to pay for expensive alternatives like Uber or Lyft, the popular non-driving alternatives that happy millennials and gentrifiers want to force on everyone else?
This is probably where Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell is headed with her recently proposed Philadelphia parking amnesty bill. In it, Blackwell seeks to offer a “one-time forgiveness of … fines, fees and penalties” for “parking violations issued three or more years ago.” Parking tickets are having a horrific toll on the city’s poorer, making-ends-meet residents, despite the snickers of news writers who point to the Blackwell legislation as unimportant political playdough.
Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell’s Philadelphia Parking Amnesty Bill seeks to offer a “one-time forgiveness of … fines, fees and penalties” for “parking violations issued three or more years ago.”
For the 30 percent or more of the city’s population that lives below the poverty line, parking tickets aren’t just “hanging in the back of [their] mind like a dark cloud.” They have, unfortunately, become a life and death matter for many in Philly, a place like many other impoverished metropolitan areas where the least among us are paying for urban budgets and amenities of the more fortunate. It’s no mystery, according to studies and reporting on the topic in recent years, that cities like Ferguson, Milwaukee, Los Angeles and countless others have long balanced their spreadsheets from punitive fines that disproportionately target the poor. Philly is on that list.
The question is how transparent could the PPA be about this? It’s barely transparent about how much revenue it generates and whether the bulk of that money is truly headed to the city school district as promised. Heading to the PPA website is mainly an invitation to pay your fine. But the agency should be engaged in an aggressive effort to tell the story most Philadelphians want to hear: How much money are you making off of us?
One has to click through several different points and the bottom of a page before arriving at that obscure place where the not-so-annual “financial statement” resides (so, here you go). There’s a lack of user-friendly graphs and infographics, which is more than likely very deliberate. After seemingly endless pages of a pointless history on the structure of the Authority, you’re still yelling “WTF??” and searching for the big nugget data point: How much money did you make, PPA? From paragraph-buried text, we find the Philadelphia School District only made $10 million out of $43 million “due to the City of Philadelphia.” Which leaves us to wonder how the school district ended up with so little when so much was promised as part of the state takeover deal?
Heading to the PPA website is mainly an invitation to pay your fine. But the agency should be engaged in an aggressive effort to tell the story most Philadelphians want to hear: How much money are you making off of us?
It would be nice to know exactly where that announced state audit of PPA finances is at the moment. But, more importantly, will that audit explore those questions posed above? Will Philly’s poorer residents get some relief, or will Philly’s least affected, middle class and affluent communities continue to shrug and poke fun at the parking ticket crisis as a simple game of musical spaces? And will PPA consider the demographic profile of who it’s punishing disproportionately? Someone needs to ask … and PPA should answer.
Charles D. Ellison is Executive Producer and Host of “Reality Check,” which airs Monday–Thursday, 4-7 p.m. on WURD Radio (96.1FM/900AM). Check out The Citizen’s weekly segment on his show every Tuesday at 6 p.m. Ellison is also Principal of B|E Strategy, the Washington Correspondent for The Philadelphia Tribune and Contributing Politics Editor to TheRoot.com. Catch him if you can @ellisonreport on TwitterHeader Photo: Amy Meredith for Flickr