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THE ULTIMATE PLACARD CENSUS: Downtown is Choked with (and Endangered By!) City, State, Federal Workers’ Cars

Photos: Noah Martz/Montage: Streetsblog Photoshop Desk

A specter is haunting Lower Manhattan — the specter of placard abuse.

How bad is it? See for yourself:

Above is a map of every single car parked in the roughly 30-square-block zone bounded by Canal, Lafayette and Chambers streets and West Broadway and Varick Street bearing a placard or other quasi-official emblem (mostly fake placards or agency vests, hats, safety helmets, fake badges, patches, business cards or hand-written notes).

Those placards and fakes allow the owner to park for free (legally or illegally) in one of the world's most-congested places.

Click on any blue car symbol to see the placard itself (you'll also see the block's parking rules or circumstances. Black means "No Parking Anytime." Purple is a truck loading zone. Yellow denotes outdoor dining. Green is metered parking. Light blue is agency authorized parking only.)

We've documented pretty much all of the different types of placards and fake placards (there’s also a list at the bottom of this story):

Placards seem to exist in four categories:

A panoply of placards.
A panoply of placards.
  • the "fake fakes” (the placard or card itself is not legit and the person using it may not even be eligible for a placard anyway).
  • the “real fakes” (a real placard or official thing, like a badge, that is being used by someone who may or may not be eligible to use it),
  • the “fake reals” (someone with a fake placard who might actually be, say, an FBI officer who doesn’t qualify for a legit placard so he made one himself)
  • the “real reals” (legitimately issued placards being used by a legit placard-class member parked in a marked agency zone during the legal hours and conducting actual city business).

So what did we learn from sending reporter Noah Martz onto the streets for what turned out to be a yeoman's job in the grueling heat and humidity of a climate change summer? First, the top-line takeaways of our "placard census":

  • Martz spotted 727 placard- or fake-placard-bearing cars in the zone, occupying roughly 65 percent of all the legal or potentially legal parking spaces, which does not count the scores of placarded cars occupying illegal parking spaces that are supposed to be set aside for other uses (such as meters or truck loading and unloading).
  • The placards in this mostly federal office zone break down as such (numbers do not add up to 100 percent because of "other" types):
    • Federal law enforcement: 183 (or 25 percent)
    • NYPD: 128 (or 18 percent)
    • NYS Court placards: 70 (or 9.6 percent)
    • Department of Correction or Probation: 51 (or 7 percent)
    • Other city agencies: 59 (or 8 percent)
    • FDNY: 37 (or 5 percent)
    • Completely ridiculous things on the dash such as notes ("armed officer," "please don't ticket me" or "call me"), fake badges, helmets, vests, official looking placards from other jurisdictions, doorman notes, repair worker notes, fake parking tickets, notes from "friends" of cops, hotel loading zones): 57 (or 8 percent)
  • Sixty-two cars (or more than 8 percent) had out-of-state plates, mostly from New Jersey, but some from far-flung places as Utah, Florida and California.
  • Nearly 10 percent of the placards (65 in all) were expired.
  • About 2 percent of the cars with placards (14 cars) had covered or defaced plates and about 3 percent had a missing front New York State or New Jersey plate. (Both states require drivers to have plates on both sides of the car.)

We also ran the plates on those 727 placarded cars because of our prior coverage that revealed that law enforcement personnel drive far more recklessly than the general public. That pattern continued here. Of those 727 cars, we found:

  • 9,064 parking and moving violation tickets — or an average of 12.5 tickets per car.
  • 2,864 speed-camera tickets — or an average of four per car.*
  • 485 red-light tickets — or about one ticket for every two cars.*

* It's worth noting that there is neither a speed camera nor a red-light camera in the zone we covered, as Streetsblog has reported (and, indeed, there isn't even a red-light camera below Houston Street at all). So any speeding or red-light tickets reflect reckless driving by the placard class on its way to or from the office (or driving during non-work times).

These findings shock the conscience — and advocacy groups were quick to jump on them.

“Ending placard abuse will end city-sponsored corruption and keep our bus and bike lanes clear of illegally-stored cars,” said Juan Restrepo, senior organizer at Transportation Alternatives. “Lower Manhattan should not revolve around cars. New York City leaders must repurpose parking into people-centric space, from bike and bus lanes to car-free pedestrian space, as we’ve outlined in NYC 25x25.”

Also worth noting: Virtually all placarded cars are illegally parked in Lower Manhattan. According to the NYPD, cars with federal, state or city placards can only park freely in metered spaces, in truck loading zones, or in a "No parking" zone (other than taxi stands) if the driver is "on official business." And the NYPD also told us that cars with federal, state or city placards can never park in a “No standing” zone. Yet 87 cars with placards had never been ticketed, even though virtually all were parked illegally.

What constitutes "official" business? Well, it's a stretch to say that "official business" includes commuting from Suffolk County in a pickup truck (more than half of NYPD officers live outside the city) and parking it all day in a truck loading zone. (The NYPD declined to comment.)

Indeed, we have a truck loading zone in front of our offices on Broadway and White Street in Lower Manhattan. Every morning, we say hello to the Department of Correction, Department of Probation, FDNY, Manhattan District Attorney and NYPD employees who park there with their placard (see below). And every afternoon, when we go to grab a sandwich, we notice that the cars are still there, ummoved.

And every evening when we clock out, we say goodnight to the Department of Correction, Department of Probation, FDNY, Manhattan District Attorney and NYPD employees who parked there all day with their "official business only" placard. (Check it out in our slideshow below.)

Why should anyone without a car even care that placard perps are occupying so much real estate in downtown? Well, for one thing, the scores of placard parkers occupying truck loading zones all day force delivery truckers to double park, which causes congestion and makes roadways less safe. Check it out:

Anatomy of a placard disaster: An NYPD placarded truck blocks a loading zone, forcing a FedEx worker to unload in the street, effectively closing Broadway. Photos: Noah Martz
Anatomy of a placard disaster: An NYPD placarded truck (with two speeding tickets since May, by the way) blocks a loading zone, forcing a FedEx worker to unload in the street, effectively closing Broadway. Photos: Noah Martz

“They park everywhere, leaving no room for deliveries. Take a look and see how many there are," said a hotel doorman (who wished to remain anonymous) on Duane Street between West Broadway and Church Street as he pointed to a car with a federal law enforcement placard. "It’s terrible.”

On his block alone, there were 10 vehicles brandishing city-issued placards.

As Streetsblog already reported, owners of placarded vehicles don't believe the laws apply to them. Some drivers feel entitled to parking in Lower Manhattan and will even create new parking spaces at the expensive of pedestrians. Streetsblog photographed this gray Honda with a NYS Court Officers placard, completely blocking a busy crosswalk:

Car w/NYSCO placard blocking crossing.jpeg 2
Placard perps at their worst!

Vehicles with federal law enforcement placards have also been documented with illegal plate covers. Parked on the east side of Church Street, between Duane and Reade streets was this Pontiac G6. It had no front plate and its rear license plate (from New York) was barely legible:

Federal Law Enforcement Placard on illegal license plate cover car
What is this placard perp hiding?

The scores of placard perps illegally parking in bus stops delay transit users and also cause congestion.

The hundreds of placard criminals whose agencies enable them to drive to and from work add in thousands of added vehicle trips, which add to pollution, road deaths and congestion.

And the hundreds of placard perps taking up metered spaces only prevent business owners in commercial strips from getting customers because of turnover.

Even notes like this work downtown. Photo: Noah Martz
Even notes like this work downtown. Photo: Noah Martz

And also, the hundreds of spots occupied by these freeloading commuters comprise acres of public space that could easily be converted to flood-preventing bioswales and parklets, outdoor dining or plazas, bike lanes, wider sidewalks or any number of socially beneficial uses.

The findings of our placard census match what the DOT discovered when it did its last placard census of Lower Manhattan in 2008 (that's 14 years ago, people). That study opened with a statement that was true then, is true now and will be true forever: "The streets of Lower Manhattan are a valuable public asset where different user groups compete for limited road space."

That study, which covered a slightly bigger zone than our census, found many of the things we found (though in lesser quantities):

  • Nearly 1 in 8 permitted vehicles (or 12.5 percent) were illegally parked at a bus stop, crosswalk, fire hydrant, driveway, or were double-parked. (In our census, 30 percent were illegally parked in that manner.)
  • About 9 percent of placards were fake. (In our census, 14 percent were fakes.)
  • Roughly 50 percent of the placarded cars were in spaces not allocated to them. (In our census 65 percent of placarded cars were in the wrong place.)
  • About 22 percent of the truck loading zones and about 18 percent of the metered parking zones were swiped by the placard class. (In our census, the numbers were 45 percent and 13 percent)

Clearly the problem is getting worse. And the danger is mounting.

  • Between Jan. 1 and July 31, 2020, there were 21 crashes in our census zone that caused injuries — and 25 people (seven cyclists, nine pedestrians and nine motorists) were hurt, according to city stats.
  • In the same period in 2021, there were 28 crashes that caused injuries — and 32 people (11 cyclists, seven pedestrians and 14 motorists) were hurt.
  • In the same period this year, there were 28 injury-causing crashes — and 36 people (10 cyclists, eight pedestrians and 18 motorists) were hurt.

And the danger is not always from moving cars. Reporting on the scourge of placard abuse in Lower Manhattan opens up a reporter to abuse and violence from the placard elite.

On July 19, Streetsblog reporter Martz was on the north side of Canal Street between Centre and Lafayette streets and noticed an illegally parked placarded car with an FDNY placard. When he begin taking pictures of the car, a white Jeep with a New Jersey license plate, Z98LLT (which has a long and unsavory record of reckless driving in the form of 13 camera-issued speeding tickets), a man wearing a black "Inhale Cannabis Club" t-shirt approached our scribe and berated him about his work, telling him to stop documenting the abuse or he was going to “beat the shit out of" our reporter.

The marijuana fan then followed our reporter, blocking his camera with his hands and body, threatening physical abuse with the added bonus, "I'm not afraid to go to jail!" screamed directly in the reporter's face. Martz decided that this jerk was probably telling the truth and left to protect life and limb.

Construction worker?
Construction worker?

Placard perps are not always violent, of course. Another time, on Broadway, Martz spotted two vehicles using reflective vests (one labeled MTA) to park illegally. The owners of the cars — one was a Porsche SUV with 41 tickets including four for reckless driving, the other a Cadillac Escalade with an even worse record, comprising 16 speeding tickets and two red-light tickets in less than 20 months — returned as Martz watched and they did not appear to be construction workers, as they were dressed in dress shirts and skinny jeans. At least they seemed embarrassed when they drove off.

With all this illegal parking going on, you'd think the NYPD would be writing tickets left and right. But as Martz found, the NYPD's own traffic enforcement agents ("enforcement" is their middle name!) don't want to write tickets and don't even think that way.

Here's what it takes to get a parking ticket issued to a placard perp!
Here's what it takes to get a parking ticket issued to a placard perp!

As Martz reported earlier in his gritty summer project, it's really hard to get a cop to write a ticket on a placard perp's car — even when it has an illegal license plate cover.

The car in question had the super secret federal AWM placard, but it also had illegal plastic covers on the front and rear license plates, covers that completely or mostly obscured the numbers. It took two NYPD employees — a TEA and his supervisor — plus multiple calls back to HQ just to get the ticket issued at all.

But Martz got his man.

The rest of us aren't so lucky. Placard abuse in Lower Manhattan — and by extension, all busy commercial zones with lots of public employees who have been entitled by their agencies — is a scourge. But it's not as if the brazen corruption is completely ignored by local authorities. In July 2022 (the last full month for which there is data), there were 11 tickets issued by city enforcement officers in the entirety of the First Precinct (which contains our census zone above). Here is a chart of those tickets:

That's up from just seven placard abuse tickets in July 2021 and just four in July 2020.

Still, that's not a lot of tickets for the hundreds of summonses that could be written every day in just our small census zone.

One of the major problems? No one is monitoring whether placard recipients are abusing their privileges. In calendar year 2019, the NYPD received 4,696 requests for federal placards ... and granted 4,696 federal placards, or 100 percent.

The next year, the NYPD received 4,896 requests ... and granted 100 percent of them.

And in 2021, the NYPD received 4,896 federal placard requests ... and (you guessed it) granted every single one of them.

The same pattern holds for MTA placards and District Attorney placards. Hundreds of applications submitted, every single one of them rubber-stamped for approval. One hundred percent. No questions asked.

— with Gersh Kuntzman and Joe Tedeschi

APPENDIX: Here is a list of every type of placard (and fake placard) we saw:

Reflective Vest
Traffic Cones
NYPD Patch
Police Benevolent Association of the City of New York Badge
"Call Me" Handwritten Note
Construction Safety Helmet
Security On Duty Sign
Doorman & Concierge Note
CICA International Badge
NYPD Redemption Receipt
NYC Dept. of Health and Mental Hygiene Special Officer (Printed out paper)

Forged Placards
NYPD Unmarked Vehicle Utilization Recopy
NYPD Patrol Borough Manhattan North Public Safety Unmarked RMP
NYC DCAS (homemade)

NYC MTA Restricted Parking Plate (fake)
Department of Probation
Off-Street Parking ID: Department of Sanitation
NYC Agency Authorized Parking ID: NYC Health + Hospitals
NYC Agency Authorized: NYS Judicial
NYC Annual On-Street Hatzolah Ambulance
Dept. of Youth & Community Development
Manhattan Detention Complex Authorized Parking Pass: Department of Correction
Television Filming Permit
AYC Agency Authorized: Manhattan Borough President Office

NYS Court Clerk
NYS Court Officers
NYS Supreme Court Officers
NYS Justice
District Attorney
State Troopers Surgeon

Federal Law Enforcement
US Postal Service

— With reporting by Joseph Tedeschi

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