When Chicago became the first and only Illinois city to roll out an Automated Speed Enforcement program, it appeared to be just another major city looking to better protect pedestrians, children in particular. Eighty-eight school-age pedestrians sustained injuries from speeding vehicles just an eighth of a mile away from their schools from 2007-2011. But as the second anniversary of the city’s installment of speed cameras nears, many have come to see it as nothing more than a lucrative, profit-fueled endeavor; the city has collected over $58 million in revenue since the first of the cameras were installed in 2013. Yet for some Chicagoans, the cameras represent more than just another way of keeping the city’s sinking budget alive; the omnipresent photo-enforcement cameras are simply a deliberate ploy to further disenfranchise Chicago’s minority neighborhoods.
“Whatever money you have, you don’t have it to give to the city.”
Chicago’s Black and Hispanic neighborhoods, such as North Lawndale, Washington Park, Ashburn, and East Side, are home to not only the largest concentration of speed cameras in the city, but also the highest grossing. Given the city’s emphasis on child safety, the initial assumption may be that these neighborhoods have issues with speeding and vehicular safety. And in the eyes of Washington Park resident Essence Smith, these cameras are a “righteous cause.”
“People drive so fast over here. I think ticket[ing] is the best way to go about it.” But when asked about the sheer number of tickets given in her neighborhood, Smith admits that they seem to be “excessive.” Washington Park’s two speed cameras have shelled out over $10,000 in fines per day since their installment in 2014.
But according to Cecilia Butler, President of the Washington Park Council, the presence of these cameras is more than excessive; it is “completely unwarranted.”
“Nobody wants these speed cameras. Because whatever money you have, you don’t have it to give to the city,” she said. And with Washington Park’s population of just under 12,000 pulling in a median income of $21,899, Butler says the tickets have further perpetuated suffering. Those who were unable to rectify their fines in within the 21-day window have “lost their cars... so now they can’t go to their jobs, or pick up their kids from school.” Butler’s statement is echoed by Ashburn resident Keya Gordon, a nursing student. “I have paid $600 in speed camera tickets this year so far,” Gordon says.
According to commuting data, we can estimate that Ashburn has a drivership of 36,500. Data provided from Loyola University Chicago Visiting Scholar Jack Macnamara shows that Ashburn is also home to a whopping eight speed cameras, four times more than that of northside neighborhood Portage Park despite the fact that the latter’s drivership rate is higher than Ashburn’s at an estimated 39,000. Some of these cameras, according to Gordon, are within two blocks of each other. One of Ashburn’s cameras is located at 2550 W. 79th Street, with another located almost directly across at 2603 W. 79th Street. it is wholly possible that a driver, if speeding, could receive violation near the former, make a u-turn at South Maplewood Avenue, and get nabbed again while heading in the opposite direction.
“Whenever I get a ticket in [West] Rogers Park, I only have to pay $35, but when I’m at home in Ashburn, I always get the $100 tickets, when I know I’m not going that fast.”But her most pressing qualms with the cameras stem from price discrepancies between tickets issued in her majority Black and Hispanic neighborhood, and the majority white neighborhoods of the northside.
The figures Gordon mentions are referring to the city’s speeding ticket pricing scheme. Drivers speeding 6-10 mph over the set speed limit receive fines of $35, while those speeding as fast as 11 mph and over must pay hefty $100 fines. According to Macnamara’s data, almost all photo-enforcement systems installed in Chicago issue, on average, three times more $100 fines than $35 fines. But if it feels as though certain Black and Latino neighborhoods are more likely to get the higher bill, it’s because they are: North Lawndale’s highest grossing camera issues about 4.5 times more $100 fines, while Ashburn’s issues a whopping seven times more $100 fines than $35 ones. While it may again appear that these areas have more issues with pedestrian safety, it is important to note that the neighborhoods that recorded the highest number of school-age pedestrian injuries through 2013, such as North Center or Auburn Gresham, do not possess nearly as many cameras or issue as many fines as North Lawndale or Ashburn.
“There’s no process in place that’s fair and unbiased”
Despite the cameras’ overwhelming tendency to issue pricey fines, the city has put into place various verification measures, and even the opportunity to challenge a speeding violation. Those who have received fines have the option of viewing video footage of the alleged infraction, so long as they possess access to high-speed internet, of course. But even this seemingly legitimate measure has many Chicago drivers questioning the accuracy of the city’s photo-enforcement system.
Mark Wallace of the Citizens To Abolish Red Light Cameras shed light on one way in which the city could possibly be falsely nabbing drivers for speeding. When describing the information shared on the ticket itself, Wallace claims that the city routinely refuses to specify the make and model of the vehicle that is supposedly speeding. Instead, the section simply reads “OTHER,” which can complicate a driver’s ability to decipher whether or not his or her vehicle was truly operating at least 6-11 mph over the speed limit.
Cue the option to contest the traffic violation.
The city has outlined clear steps for drivers who do not believe they actually committed a speeding violation. Of the five accepted speeding defenses, the Chicago Department of Transportation, or CDOT, allows drivers to challenge their tickets either by letter or in-person if “the facts alleged in the speeding violation notice are inconsistent or do not support a finding that the specified regulation was violated.” But neither Mark Wallace or Keya Gordon believe that the contestation process is fair and equitable for the city’s less affluent drivers.
Gordon questions whether or not lower-income drivers can actually afford to spend half of a workday in court for the sole purpose of contesting a $100 ticket, especially since there is no guarantee that the violation will be overturned. Gordon states that so far she’s had one ticket thrown out after contesting it, but the city has yet to release data concerning the number of ticket contestations that are filed each year. As far as challenging the ticket via letter, Gordon isn’t sure that everyone who wants to pursue that option “has the writing skills to effectively and persuasively petition the ticket.”
Wallace echoes many of the same concerns and described situations in which some Chicagoans are forced to choose between paying the ticket and buying groceries, paying a light bill, or even just making rent. The compounding fees assigned to unpaid fines can only serve to make things more difficult. He claims that, because these “disproportionately placed” cameras most often target drivers in poorer, underserved neighborhoods, “there is no process in place that is unfair and unbiased.” Speeding violations have also cost some drivers their jobs. According to Wallace, 282 city bus drivers have been fired after receiving at least two speeding infractions while driving their personal vehicles within a 24-month period. Over $18 million has been lost in earnings and benefits. But given the time consuming and often confusing nature of the contestation process it may not be possible to figure out whose speeding tickets were justified or unjustified—and furthermore—which bus drivers deserved to keep their jobs. For them and many others, the system is routinely set up for “the city to win, and the [driver] to lose.”
“It all just looks like a money grab.”
Many Chicagoans have come to see the speed cameras as nothing more than an abuse of public policy. But some city officials, like Alderman Anthony Beale, have hinted that the city cannot afford to stay afloat without the revenue generated from the photo-enforcement program.
Xavier Ramey, a former long-time resident of North Lawndale, refuses to accept that claim as a justification for the cameras.
“It all just looks like a money grab,” he says.
Initially his concerns, along with those of his neighborhood, centered on “equitable dispersions,” a rather polite way of describing the sentiment that majority white neighborhoods (which, on average, have similar or even higher rates of drivership) are deliberately shielded from bearing the brunt of the photo-enforcement program—even though, in some cases, they’ve deliberately asked for the opposite.
Michael Nelson, president of the Forest Glen Community Club, says his neighborhood made a specific request for cameras to be installed because of rampant speeding, a claim substantiated by the fact that Forest Glen’s only camera shells out over $7,000 in fines per day, despite having been installed only ten months ago. According to Nelson, the camera has done very little to deter speeding.
North Lawndale has an estimated drivership of 14,000 and is home to six speed cameras, with the most lucrative one generating over $4,500 in fines per day since its installation. But unlike Forest Glen, North Lawndale residents don’t believe their community has a speeding problem. Ramey claims that the highest-grossing camera in his neighborhood, located at 2900 W. Ogden Road, isn’t close enough to an area with enough young pedestrians to justify its placement. Rather, the camera was placed in an area that so happens to be a very busy intersection with hundreds of cars passing through per day, many of whom Ramey believes aren’t residents of his community. Attempts to reach a representative from CDOT to determine just how many drivers receiving tickets in their own neighborhoods were unsuccessful. The overall lack of transparency from CDOT only fuels claims that the speed cameras were installed for profit, not safety, at the expense of already-struggling communities.
But as lawsuits against automated ticketing gain more traction, coupled with recent moves in state legislatures around the country to ban speed cameras for many of the same concerns expressed here, the city’s photo-enforcement system may not be able to survive this wave of increased scrutiny. And for the many Chicagoans whose finances have suffered at the hands of these cameras, it’s a possibility worth making a reality.
The image and map were both made by the author.