The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. is really good at writing parking tickets. Sometimes sneaky, too.

The scene: Washington, D.C. L Street and Vermont Avenue N.W.

The time: Rush hour. Monday, Aug. 1, 2016.

The players:

Action: The parking enforcement officer pulls behind the unsuspecting driver, who is sitting in her car with the hazard lights flashing. With the expert movements of a hunter closing on its prey, the parking enforcement officer whips out a handheld ticketing device and taps some buttons on it. The officer exits her vehicle. The officer ambushes the unsuspecting driver with a citation.

“You couldn’t have asked the driver to move before you write her a ticket?” a passerby asks.

“It’s none your business,” the parking enforcement agent replies.

“Well, that’s not fair, is it?” the passerby asks. “Isn’t that all of our business?”

[Driver and parking enforcement officer exit.]


Another ticket is written. Another driver’s wallet is left a little lighter. It’s a scene that could happen anywhere anytime, but issuing citations is something that happens in D.C. a lot. It’s one of the few things the District’s government is very, very good at.

This is why John B. Townsend, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, isn’t at all surprised by what happened on L Street and Vermont Avenue. If anything, the parking enforcement agent might have cleared away the offending motorist more quickly – and eased the flow of traffic, which is presumably a goal of parking laws – if the officer had told the driver to move along instead of spending the time she did writing the ticket, Townsend said.

“I think that ticket could have been avoided by exercising some common courtesy,” Townsend said after being told what happened with the  parking enforcement officer. “That’s part of their job, is to warn.”

D.C. is the Wild West when it comes to parking and traffic enforcement, Inspector General report suggests

Nancee Lyons — who is a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Works, which handles parking enforcement — said although there’s no rule or regulation that requires parking officers to give verbal warnings before issuing citations, officers are taught during their initial training that they should approach the vehicle and ask the driver to move out of the violation zone first. But she also noted that there are often times when an officer has observed the same driver or vehicle violating the same parking law on a regular basis. In those cases, the officer is permitted to use discretion as to whether to issue a citation on the spot.

The department’s main objective, after all, is to “facilitate traffic flow and promote traffic safety,” Lyons said in an email. She added that parking enforcement (against the other guy, obviously) is the second-most requested service that residents call for.

“We should note that the purpose of the ‘No Standing’ signage is to dissuade motorist[s] from occupying a designated space, even temporarily, to allow traffic to flow freely,” Lyons said. “Once the motorist idles in this space, he or she is immediately in violation and eligible for a citation.”

Here’s Washington’s haul in parking ticket revenues, according to AAA Mid-Atlantic

AAA Mid-Atlantic has been saying for some time now that D.C. punches above its weight when it comes to writing parking tickets. The city doled out 1.6 million tickets in fiscal 2015, worth $87.7 million, Townsend said. That makes the city’s parking enforcement officers some of its busiest people. In fiscal 2012 — which he said is the most recent year for this data — the city’s 226 officers dashed off about 1.8 million tickets, he said. That’s 7,964 a year, or about 22 a day. There are 236 officers on staff at the moment.

“D.C. writes more tickets per capita than most cities its size,” Townsend said. “No place in the country writes as many tickets.”

Townsend ticked off a list of reasons why he believes D.C. is highly productive when it comes to writing citations: the city code defines 182 ways to violate the parking laws, including failing to set the emergency brake (New York City, he said, has about 95); some of D.C.’s parking signs are written with “Byzantine” complexity; the city doubles in size during business hours, and many visitors and tourists don’t know or understand the parking rules; and its supply of available parking hasn’t grown in decades. He also suspects that parking officers have quotas to keep. In 2007, some of the city’s parking enforcement officers were so inventive that they were writing tickets for “Failure to Turn Wheels to Curb” — a precaution that’s necessary when you’re parked on a hill — even in places where there were no hills.

They say they have no quota,” Townsend said. “[But] if you fall below the expected standard, you’re called in on the carpet.”

But Lyons said there are no quotas and no tricks.

“Every effort is made to perform this function in a manner that enhances the reputation of good government within the District of Columbia,” Lyons said.

–This post has been updated to fix the date.


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