The Cost of Getting Your Car Booted by the City of Chicago

by Meryl Williams

I spent five years living in the great city of Chicago, and was cited no fewer than 12 times for parking violations. The first one was about a month into my tenure, when I learned a valuable lesson about street cleaning, which is that it exists, but only on certain days and for six months out of the year. Mortified, I promptly paid my $60 fine and vowed to read street signs more closely in the future.

However, as my time there went on, two things became clear to me: 1) In Chicago, owning a car is almost more of a liability than a convenience, and 2) the City of Chicago’s finance department does not mess around. My first winter there, I got a ticket for blocking a sidewalk that was, at the time, hidden by eight inches of snow. I became less patient in these matters.

Much has been said and written about Chicago’s long, torrid history with parking, ranging from coverage of the now-infamous privatized parking meters contract to the many ways one can evade late fees on unpaid tickets, and even how to contest them.

However, I am here to tell you about the time I didn’t do any of that, and decided to ignore several tickets in a row.

To be fair, I thought I only had two parking tickets to my name in the months leading up to my move to Portland. The first I knew of came my way while I was actually visiting Portland, and I came back to lovely Chicago to find it waiting for me with open arms.

I’d been parked in a spot where paid parking hours began at 5 a.m., and it turned out going to move it at 6 a.m. really was too late. I got the second one a few weeks later, for parking inches too close to a yellow line painted 20 feet in front a fire hydrant.

As infuriating as these were, they were both my fault! I fully accept that. They just happened to come during a time when I was feeling fed up with a lot of things about my life in Chicago, and they only fueled my plans to move to Portland.

I thought for sure I could simply park with extreme caution until my July move date and never, ever bring my car back to the state of Illinois, but Chicago knew better. Chicago doesn’t care if you’re parked legally. CPD will scan all plates on the off chance that they find one with some outstanding tickets — like my little Cavalier, then parked so innocently on Elston Avenue.

I woke up one morning in May to find an early going-away present from the city: a stylish yellow boot for my car.

I stared at it for a minute and then laughed.

“They finally got me,” I said to myself, and googled the nearest location of the Chicago Department of Revenue. There, I waited in line in a dismal bureaucratic building where no one was happy to be, and paid $596.80 to get the boot off my car.

It turned out I’d actually had four tickets, but was only aware of two of them. Chicago’s parking tickets double in cost if you don’t pay them by their due date. The tickets I was aware of were $60 (street cleaning) and $100 (too close to that fire hydrant), and the two I didn’t know existed were $60 each. Had I paid my tickets as they came in and, you know, actually opened the mail I got from the city’s finance department to learn about the other two, I would have only paid $280.

If I hadn’t been saving up for my move, this $600 would have had to go on a credit card. Instead, I had to fork over a giant chunk of my moving funds. (Luckily I managed to cut a couple corners during my cross-country move, weeks later.)

Though it might be tempting, you shouldn’t just ignore parking tickets no matter how unjust you may believe them to be. It’s a flawed strategy even if you are planning an exodus, and you really can’t get mad when you gamble and lose.

Pay your tickets, city folks! Or better yet, sell your car. They’re not all they’re cracked up to be anyway.

This piece is part of a series examining our financial vices.

Meryl Williams is a Chicago journalist who recently moved to Portland. She loves roller derby, upbeat music with depressing lyrics, and shamelessly ordering the Kids Pack-size popcorn at the movies. Sign up for her awesome TinyLetter.

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