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Big Bucks From Tow Trucks

Is an inconspicuous no-parking sign making the city a fortune at the expense of innocent drivers?

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By Ben Joravsky

Coming from southern California, whose car-dependent public is easily exploited, John Soward thought he had seen it all when it came to parking-ticket schemes.

Then he encountered Chicago's Gold Coast tourist-bus hustle.

"I know how ruthless parking enforcement can be," says Soward. "But this was something else. You had to see this to believe it."

His story begins in the early afternoon of Sunday, January 2, when he and a friend drove downtown to shop on Michigan Avenue. They parked on Superior between Rush and Wabash, right near the Rosebud cafe.

"There was no obvious signage saying we couldn't park there," says Soward. "There were other cars parked on the streets. We had no reason to think we couldn't park there. The meter was turned off because it was Sunday. I figured, great, we'll park for free. A lucky break."

After about 90 minutes of shopping they returned and couldn't find their car. They wondered if it had been stolen. Or had they parked on a different street? Then they noticed a police officer sitting in his car.

"We approached him in his vehicle,"says Soward. "He had just finished ticketing all the cars on Superior. He told us our car had been towed. I couldn't believe it. Towed? For what? He pointed to a single sign in the middle of the street. It said, 'No parking. Busing zone on Saturday and Sunday.'"

The officer explained that the street had been reserved on weekends for buses that haul out-of-towners to Michigan Avenue shopping sprees. "I'm thinking, buses? What buses? This was about two weeks after the Christmas shopping season. Who's going to be coming here to shop?" says Soward.

They hailed a cab to take them to the lower Wacker Avenue city pound. Then they realized they didn't have the exact address. So they returned to ask the cop on Superior.

"It was as though nothing had changed since we left,"says Soward. "Cars kept coming around to park. They would see an empty space in front of a meter and park. The drivers would get out and then the police officer would ticket them. Then the tow truck came and towed them. It just went on and on.

"We decided to stay for a while and get a bite to eat from Rosebud's before we got the car. So we saw this whole thing going on for an hour or so. I want to be conservative in my estimates, but they must have towed at least ten cars while we were watching. Put it this way--anytime we looked on Superior we saw a car hooked to a tow truck. Who knows how many were towed before and after we got there."

The more he thought about it, the more perplexing the situation seemed. The cop was making no effort to warn drivers about the parking ban and the sign was too obscure to be noticed. This was nothing like the effort the city makes for street cleaning, when it truly wants to clear a street of parked cars. In that case no-parking signs are tied to almost every tree, post, and meter.

This was much different. Even the message on the sign was ambiguous. It didn't say clearly how much of the street was off-limits to parking. It was as though the city didn't want drivers to know about the parking ban. It was as though the sign was hung less to warn drivers than to trap them.

"We weren't the only people who were confused,"says Soward. "We saw dozens of people park here. I told them that I had been towed and warned them that they were going to be towed. They were incredulous. One man actually didn't believe me. I said, 'Look at the sign.' He read the sign and came to the conclusion that I was wrong and that it was OK to park there. He went into Rosebud's. Ultimately his lady friend convinced him to move his car. But it was strange. Initially he was irritated at me as though it was my fault he had to move. Then he realized I had saved him a ticket or a tow and he thanked me.

"Yes, it was quite a system, like a revolving door. The car would park, the police officer would ticket, the trucks would tow, and then new cars would park in the spaces cleared by the tow trucks. We talked to the manager of Rosebud's and he said it was absolutely ludicrous. That this had been going on since Thanksgiving. And that the police officer had made no effort at all to warn drivers."

Other drivers were livid, and almost all queried the police officer. "He wasn't much help," says Soward. "Obviously, he could tell that what he was doing was causing problems. But he kept on doing it. I asked him about the appropriateness of enforcing a parking ban that was not adequately signed and for which there was no apparent need, since the shopping season was over and there were no tourist buses in sight. He gave no valid reason for the parking prohibition. He said he had been dealing with complaints such as mine all day long and that he doesn't make the laws, he only enforces them. And that as long as the law was there he had a right to enforce it. He said, 'If you want the sign to come down, talk to the alderman.'"

Eventually Soward and his friend caught a cab to the pound and retrieved their car. "It cost $115--I put it on my credit card," he says. "Afterwards I tried to figure how much money they made off of this operation. If they tow 200 cars in a weekend, that's $20,000. That's quite a moneymaker. It was being enforced for no apparent reason other than as a revenue generator. I felt I was paying a tax to the city as opposed to being fined for parking illegally."

Terry Levin, spokesman for the Department of Streets and Sanitation, which does the towing but doesn't make the rules, says that on January 2 an even dozen cars were towed from Superior between Rush and Wabash for violating the charter bus zone.

Soward's story is confirmed by Brian Kirk, the manager of Rosebud on Rush. "Sure, I remember him--he was very upset by what was going on and I don't blame him," says Kirk. "It makes no sense. The buses reserve the space from Thanksgiving through Christmas. They've got buses coming in from Wisconsin, or Iowa, or Michigan, or wherever. The sign's very misleading. You can't even see it. It's a joke. I would say ten cars were towed the afternoon that guy came in, but I don't know for sure because I wasn't counting. From my perspective the sign doesn't do the drivers any good because they can't see it. It doesn't do us any good because the whole thing scares away business. People get upset. If you get towed are you going to come back to our restaurant? I doubt it."

Soward has even harsher words about the matter that he won't utter publicly. But Eugene Pincham feels no such restraint. For several years the retired judge has been waging a one-man campaign against what he calls unjust parking restrictions (his appeal of a residents-only parking ticket is slowly making its way to the state supreme court). Soward's tale inspired Pincham to orate on one of his favorite themes: the idiocy and inequity of city parking laws.

"It's a game, a gimmick, a hustle," says Pincham. "They're basically shaking people down. They're using public streets to create a hidden tax to raise revenue that they don't want to be accountable for. It's a low-down dirty scheme. I know that parking pound [Soward] went to. I've been there myself when my car's been towed. They just suck your money up with all their parking gimmicks. It's gotten so that whenever I see an open space on the street downtown, I won't park there because I figure it's a trap."

Charles Edwards, a spokesman for the city's Department of Revenue, which collects parking tickets but doesn't make the rules, says that a buses-only parking ban is generally passed by the City Council at the request of the local alderman. In this case that would be the 42nd Ward's Burt Natarus.

Natarus did not return calls for comment.

"They should be embarrassed," says Pincham. "Tourist bus? Man, what a scam."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.

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