The fire hydrant. For decades, it has been feared by any New York City driver who dares to venture out without a tape measure. If your car comes within 15 feet of a hydrant, the next thing you know you may be at the tow pound, picking it up with a several hundred dollar bill.
Ticketing and towing cars both serve a public service. Nevertheless, I was curious to see which hydrants in New York are responsible for the most tickets. If a particular address had a huge number of tickets, I suspected that something might be amiss. And with some help from NYC Open Data, I launched my so called "investigation".
And look what I stumbled upon.
Meet the hydrant opposite 152 Forsyth St in Manhattan.
Between August 15th and March 26, 2014, cars here have been ticketed 187 times! Those fines add up to $21,505 or annualized more than $33,000 a year. And that is before towing fees. That is the highest revenue generating hydrant in all of New York City. But, and there is a huge but, I'm guessing that all of these cars were parked legally.
Let me explain.
If you look at these shots from Google Street View, there is what appears to be a protected bike lane between where all of these cars are parked and the hydrant:
So that raises the question: can you legally park in front of a hydrant if there is a protected bike lane between you?
Let's ask the DOT:
@alexsilverman Yes – if there is a designated marked parking space and the pertinent parking sign authorizes parking.
— NYC DOT (@NYC_DOT) October 3, 2012
Designated Parking Space? Check. Sign Authorizing Parking? Check again.
And yet on September 9th, two tickets were given here at 9:42 and 9:43 AM, one was given at 1:06PM, one was given at 3:42PM and one at 5:49PM. And that's just one day.
So what's the deal? One theory is that technically, the lane behind the cars is not a protected bike lane. You would never know it by looking at it, but it is not painted and there are no markings. It is simply an empty space that people bike in. Should that matter? Probably not, but the NYPD might think otherwise. Unless this is a deliberate attempt to craft a "honeypot," there should be clearer markings on the pavement to avoid this seemingly arbitrary ticketing.
[Ed. Note: The Department of Transportation confirmed in a statement that this is indeed not a protected bike lane but a curb extension. The DOT said it has not received complaints about the location, but it "will review the roadway markings and make any appropriate alterations."]
And amazingly, the fun on Forsyth does not stop there. There is another hydrant, just down the block, opposite from 104 Forsyth:
This is the the second most ticketed hydrant in all of NYC. 139 tickets in 7.5 months. Another $25,000 a year at this rate.
What can we do about this? I'd like to see the DOT use this sort of data to identify hot spots that need better signage and street markings, or where enforcement might need to be changed. It may mean slightly less revenue for the city, but procedure fairness is a virtue.
And wait a minute, what's that on the Mini Cooper's windshield on Google Street View?
Sorry buddy. See you at the tow pound.
For comparison purposes, please see this properly painted spot in the same situation, where the DOT has added stripes to mark the spot as illegal.
Ben Wellington is a visiting assistant professor at the City & Regional Planning program at the Pratt Institute. His blog I Quant NY tells stories gleaned from analyzing NYC Open Data.