Outside of the luxurious Skyview Parc residences in Flushing, Queens, residents are often greeted with a black minivan mere feet from the foyer’s entrance. The vehicle is frequently parked in a no standing and no parking zone overnight. As ticketing officers pass by, a large dashboard placard makes it invisible to the early morning street patrol.
The owner of this vehicle is a Queens assemblyman, who as reported by the Queens Eagle, is remorseful for his prolonged placard misuse. "I feel horrible that some people feel that I’ve been abusing my placard,” he said.
The story of placard abuse in New York City is a tired one, and few elected or government officials are as remorseful or introspective when exposed for parking misdeeds.
We’ve seen the story dozens of times: An official is caught misusing their placard privileges, and a hard-nosed reporter or resident must continue to monitor the wrongdoing to catch the official in the act. The official obfuscates the extent of misuse, apologizes and then continues to wield the entitlements of placard ownership, likely to mishandle traffic ticket immunity again.
You may think placard abuse is an innocuous offense, but New York’s history of traffic corruption dates back to the 1980s, when a widespread ticketing jobbery led to the suicide of the Queens congressman suspected of orchestrating it all — a story that became a pilot episode for “Law & Order.” Blocking sidewalks may be obnoxious, but blocking bike lanes is dangerous and puts cyclists at risk. And getting free parking when you’re not on official business is categorically wrong.
The crux of the problem is the lack of transparency and accountability, and the solution is a simple tech-based one: Track all placard use via QR code or an app and make all the data open to the public.
Similar to how digitally progressive cities around the world have implemented smart meter parking applications, placards should come with QR codes that could be scanned by ticketing officers or any passersby and residents. Owners of placards would be required to log into an app every time a city-issued parking permit is used.
A compulsory description of the need for use would be mandatory, accessible on an open portal to the public. If a police officer or ticketing officer doesn’t scan the QR code or license plate or enforce the infraction, a member of the public can at the very least report the infraction more easily. In this way, traffic enforcement becomes crowdsourced.
Since 2018, 7,409 placard complaints have been logged to the city’s 311 hotline according open data provided by the city. Of these reported incidents, only 703 resulted in tickets or summons for parking infractions — an under-enforced 9.48%. The issue with this data is that it is anonymized and the most deceitful, repeat abusers can continue their misapplication of license namelessly. Moreover, the data is based on infractions that are reported, not the likely tens of thousands that go unreported among the 124,000 placards that have been issued.
As recently as February, the Department of Transportation began trialing new placards with its own agency — with barcodes to confirm validity and thwart counterfeiting. This concept is not new. It was introduced as a bill in 2011 by a council member, only to be opposed by Mayor Bloomberg and ranking officials in the New York Police Department. But the growing use of QR codes recently and the trends towards open data offers an opportunity to reinvent the system and digitize placards to be publicly scannable and trackable, while providing enforcement and accountability.
There may be an argument for the legitimate official use for placards — for government officials on duty who are conducting official and timely business. After all, who would want a city official being paid for a half-hour or an hour to search for parking, that could cost the city millions in compensation? And given the political obstinacy, it also would be a fight to eliminate placards entirely, and this transparent tech-based reform is the next best fix.
Corruption begins with those with authority who undercut the public’s trust even in the smallest of ways, a perversion of power that permits and leads to cultures of corruption within agencies and institutions. We can force those with placard privileges to be kept honest and create more transparency around a system of privilege that has largely operated in the dark but visible day-to-day on our streets.
Skandul is the founder of Capitol Foundry, a digital innovation firm.