How One Numbers Geek Discovered a Parking Ticket Error that Will Save NY Drivers Millions

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The word “data” scares a lot of people. Like who? Like me; I perceive it as an impenetrable foreign language. Thankfully, some people don’t have this reaction; because data, when read correctly, can unearth clear solutions to seemingly impenetrable problems—like excessive parking tickets.

Ben Wellington—author of the fascinating data-driven blog I Quant NY—is one of those people. And, recently, looking at open data from NYPD, he found that the agency had been issuing thousands of dollars in parking tickets every year to drivers that had been perfectly, legally parked. And, thanks to his data-savvy eye, NYPD has told him that this practice will stop, reports New York Magazine.

Here’s what happened: Wellington got a few tickets on his own Brooklyn block for parking in front of a pedestrian ramp that was not attached to a crosswalk. Upon looking into it, Wellington found that a little-known law had been changed in 2009 that made such spots legal. He had his own tickets dismissed—but it occurred to him that many others were likely suffering the same fate, and he was not wrong.

Looking at NYPD’s open data portal, Wellington found that in just two and a half years the agency had issued thousands of tickets to drivers in these spots for more than $1 million dollars, even though these cars were legally parked. Yeowzah.

The portal he looked at included detailed information about these parking tickets. So, wellington isolated the spots that were most-highly-ticketed—one for example, that amassed $48,000 worth of tickets in a period of two and a half years—and found that, actually, this spot was definitely legal. It was another pedestrian ramp sans attached crosswalk. He ultimately looked into 30 of the most highly-ticketed spots, and found that all appeared perfectly legal.

In total, 1,966 pedestrian ramp spots had at least five tickets attached to them that resulted in $1.7 million per year in tickets. Wellington wondered if every one of those spots were legal? “The majority sure are, many more that have fewer than five tickets are likely legal, too,” Wellington says.

Wellington raised the issue with NYPD and then watched a miracle unfold. They wrote back to Wellington, and told him they would re-train their officers to stop them from mis-issuing these tickets.

“It appears to be a misunderstanding by officers on patrol of a recent, abstruse change in the parking rules,” NYPD said. In 2009, when the rule changed, it was traffic agents who were trained about the law, they said, not regular officers. NYPD has since reached out to the precincts with the greatest number of such summonses to stop them from issuing similar tickets.

“I was speechless,” Wellington said. “THIS is what the future of government could look like one day. THIS is what Open Data is all about.”

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