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Meter Maid Blues
David Macey

Photo: David Macey
Any local Chicagoan can, on the spot, give you ten reasons why Chicago is the greatest city in the world. And on a majority of those lists is going to be our transportation system. After all, the CTA can get you pretty much anywhere (take that LA!) and street parking is available in almost every neighborhood (that’s right New York!), but you have to know where to look for it. Chicago car owners all have horror stories about parking tickets with violations that seem like they were made up on the spot. This guide will show you how to navigate the crazy world of Chicago street parking, where to find the best spots, and how to get out of that damn orange ticket when you get it.

Where can I park?
City driving can be pretty intimidating at first (six way intersections), but you’ll get the hang of it pretty fast. Finding parking, on the other hand, remains a thorn in the side of many veteran Chicago drivers. Parking in Chicago gives drivers two basic options; a paid spot in a lot or garage or a curbside spot on the street. Both options have their advantages and disadvantages. Paid spots are generally safer (especially in covered garages) and much more convenient, but come at a hefty price of up to $200 a month. Street parking is cheap, but unreliable and a little bit risky—one night I parked my jeep on Belmont, and the next morning it had a burrito smeared across the windshield. However, with this guide, a little luck, and a lot of experience, finding a street parking spot will go from a surefire headache to just a mild nuisance.

Takin it to the streets . . .
So you’ve decided that the spare $150 you have left over every month will be better used towards a social life than a nice comfy garage spot for you car. Well then, you better start paying attention: if you are going to offer up your car to the street gods you better come prepared with some serious knowledge. The first lesson is that there are two very general categories which all Chicago street parking fall under; metered parking (main streets) and residential parking (side streets).

Metered Parking:
The Parking Meter, despite being the ultimate symbol of civic authority, is generally the easiest place to park your car on the street in Chicago, but strict regulations and frequent patrolling by meter maids (aka Revenue Officers) can make them very inconvenient. Metered spots are most prominent in the Loop, on main streets, and in other high traffic areas. They only take quarters (as if you didn’t need them for laundry or anything), and one will get you anywhere from an hour to 15 minutes depending on where you are. In general the closer you are to the loop or other high traffic areas the more expensive the meters and the the tickets are going to be.

Photo: David Macey
The reason Mayor Daley likes using parking meters is to ensure you can only park in that spot temporarily while collecting a steady stream of revenue in the process. This is accomplished by placing a not always enforced time limit on all meters, ranging from 2-3 hours depending on where you are. If you are feeling adventurous you can “feed the meter” after the time period is up and pray the meter maid has a bad memory. The fine for breaking the two hour limit is the same as for an expired meter ($25-$50) so it is worth a shot. In three years I have gotten numerous tickets for expired meters, but never one for going over the two hour limit. The good news about meters is that most of them are usually only active during the day and early evening, so overnight parking is possible for free. However, they usually activate early in the morning, between 7-9 am, so be prepared to get there early to avoid a ticket. The revenue officers, surely fans of strong coffee, are up first thing in the morning to get violators.

Residential Parking
Despite my quip above about Daley, in reality most parking in Chicago is regulated by your Alderman, and they do a pretty good job of making sure the residents of their wards can find spots close to home. Parking on side streets, just like metered parking, gets easier the farther you get away from the city center. In fact most of the far south, west, and north sides have no regulations whatsoever on their side streets and parking is plentiful. In the more densely populated residential neighborhoods like Lincoln Park and Lakeview, however, most side streets are regulated by permits that are only available to people who live in the neighborhood. In order to obtain a residential permit you need to purchase a city vehicle sticker ($75), bring the receipt to your Alderman’s office along with proof of address (i.e. a utility bill), and $25. They are good for the year and expire every June 30th. In addition, residents can buy a book of guest permits for $5 that gives a guest access to parking in that area for 24 hours.

Street parking veterans, like myself, love seeing the naïve and usually suburban folks park in a permit spot on Saturday for their big night out on the town. You can actually hear them say “We can park here right?” and “I’m sure they never actually check.” Well, guess what? They do check—and with zeal. Meter maids hop all over permit violators like a great white on freshly drawn blood. Crafty drivers have been known to try and use a guest permit more than once, by changing the date on it with erasable pen or a pencil. Unfortunately, these enterprising individuals forget that meter maids usually patrol the same areas, so while you might fool them once, you are bound to get caught after a day or two. While residential parking does give the street parker the chance to try and “stick it to the man” through trickery and deception, the price for violating a permit spot is a full $75 so, in reality, the trick is on you.

Photo: David Macey
Other Violations
In addition to the tickets you can get at meters or in permit spots there are other tickets you can get no matter where you park:

Bad Parkers – For those parallel parking challenged individuals out there the City of Chicago has a nice little surprise for you. If your car is more than a foot away from the curb at any point, you will get a $25 ticket. In addition, if you can’t get your wheels inside the yellow lines of a diagonal spot, expect a $25 ticket too. If you are a total idiot and the meter maid deems that your parking job is hazardous to traffic, expect a $75 fine.

Handicapped/Disabled Spots – In addition to designated handicap parking in lots and garages don’t be surprised to see certain areas of residential streets marked off with signs for a disabled permit. These allow handicapped city residents the ability to park on their street as close to their house as possible. If you are a big enough asshole to park in one, make sure you have your checkbook ready. When you are caught it will cost you $200.

Fire Hydrant – You cannot park within 15 feet of any fire hydrant. This area is almost always marked with yellow paint on the curb in front of the hydrant. If any part of your car goes over the yellow line you are eligible for a ticket which is $100. Fans of Backdraft will remember the other consequences of parking in front of a fire hydrant—your car no longer having windows.

Standing/Double Parking – I have never been ticketed for double parking, but legally you can be. A cop asked us to drive around the block once on moving day, but otherwise I have not had any issues. If you stand in a bike lane, bus stop, crosswalk, sidewalk, bridge, or train tracks, however, expect to earn a $100 ticket.

Street Cleaning – Most neighborhoods have a strict street cleaning schedule that you can access online at your Alderman’s website. Otherwise pay attention to where you car is every night. Before they do street cleaning the city is required to post signs announcing when you will have to move your car. They are usually orange and usually you have to have your car off the street by 9 am. If you don’t, you can kiss another $50 goodbye.

Oh no, I got a ticket!
Uh oh! Could it be? Is there a large orange envelope on the windshield of your car? Well congratulations, you officially got a parking ticket from the City of Chicago. See what you get by not following my advice? We’ll don’t fret, even after you get the dreaded orange envelope there are three options still available to you:

1. Pay the fine by mail, in person, or online.
2. Contest the ticket in writing by mail.
3. Contest the ticket in person.

Photo: David Macey
Depending on the situation your best bet is to just pay the ticket as quickly as possible. After all if you contest, it is basically the City’s word versus yours and just because you wear your prom tux to the hearing doesn’t mean the judge is going to side with you. If you don’t pay up within seven days the city will send a violation notice to the address where the vehicle is registered and, if still unpaid, eventually boot and tow your car. However, if you think you were given a ticket in error, you should contest it by mail. Just remember you must do it within 21 days of getting the ticket.

To contest a ticket by mail you need to write a nice one page letter and supply any necessary evidence to support your claim. In the letter explain why the revenue officer was wrong for issuing you a ticket and why you
should not have to pay the fine. Don’t give them sob story (“but she dumped me!”) or feign total ignorance (“I’ve never seen a fire hydrant before.”). Valid reasons include improper signage or a broken meter. A full list is located on the city’s website. In addition you should include as much evidence as you can to substantiate your claim, i.e. photos of broken meter or blocked signage and/or written testimony from witnesses.

After you contest the violation by mail you should wait for a response which usually comes within 4-6 weeks. If your contention is denied, you will then have 21 days to pay the fine. Alternatively you can contest the ticket in person by requesting a hearing when you initially receive a ticket, like written contentions; however, again you need to respond within 21 days. I have no experience contesting a ticket in person, but you are given no extra leeway because you show up instead of mailing it in. If anything, they are upset you are making them go through the whole process when you could have easily contested by mail.

So, in short, if you have real grounds to contest the ticket, do so by mail. If not, pay the fine as fast as possible and consider it a charitable donation to the fine City of Chicago. Then go spend more money on a beer at your local pub for you to cry over.

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