Bike Talk: Citizen Police


Illustration by Sean Rynkewicz

Illustration by Sean Rynkewicz

By Randy Lobasso

Twitter user @bluebees posted a helmet cam video last November depicting a Philly cyclist riding up behind a FedEx van, reaching toward a partially obscured license plate with a knife and ripping off what appears to be a sticker covering a single number on the plate. 

Revealed underneath is Pennsylvania license plate ZNE1799, a tag linked to more than $2,500 in unpaid parking tickets to the Philadelphia Parking Authority (PPA) for offenses such as parking in no-parking zones, crosswalks and loading areas. 

Similarly, a UPS truck photographed in a bike lane in January of last year currently owes $739 in unpaid tickets. Another motor vehicle, with Pennsylvania plate KSZ7219, owes a whopping $2,064 in parking fines in Philadelphia, most of which (37, to be exact) are for expired inspection. 

“The Philadelphia Parking Authority is supposed to tow vehicles with three outstanding tickets. How does one car even accumulate 37 violations for the same offense?” asks Aaron Bauman, a South Philly-based web developer who recently created the Twitter bot @HowsMyDrivingPA. 

How does it work? As the developer and cyclist notes, the PPA has an online payment form, through which people can pay their outstanding tickets. His bot, then, is a proxy for that form: 

“When you mention @HowsMyDrivingPA in a tweet with a license plate tag number, the bot submits the tag to PPA’s form and replies to your tweet with any violations it finds,” he explains.

Bauman says he created the bot to fight against Philadelphia “politicians’ general attitude of car supremacy and embrace of toxic car culture.”

A Drupal developer who’s been biking in South Philadelphia for over 20 years, Bauman says he was inspired by a similar Twitter bot out of New York City, appropriately called @HowsMyDrivingNY. 

“It uses New York State’s extensive violations database to provide violation history by vehicle plate number,” he explains. 

The PA bot really should be called the PPA bot, he says, due to it only being able to show Philadelphia-based tickets. 

“I’ve already heard from a Pittsburgher accusing me of Southeast Pennsylvania elitism, but I’m working with what I got,” he says.

Bauman’s work on this bot represents a growing trend of web developers and engineers utilizing technology to shine some light on potentially dangerous scofflaws. Along with How’s My Driving NY, apps targeting illegal behavior by motorists have popped up around the world, with the UK’s Car Park Management’s i-Ticket app and Canada’s SpotSquad leading the way, as they actually offer incentives for citizens to report illegally parked vehicles. 

The trend has been met with mixed feelings (and results).

When SpotSquad was developed in 2013, its potential users were referred to as “money-grubbing killjoys and people who didn’t get into the police academy,” in an article published by The New York Observer. 

“The snitches can simply download the app, take a photo of the car and choose from a list of infractions,” the article says.

Another app in development in Washington, D.C., OurStreets, will allow users to take photos and report illegally parked drivers, with a particular focus on ride-hailing apps and cabs. 

Complaints will go “directly into the back end of [Department of For-Hire Vehicles], right into their complaint system,” OurStreets chief executive Mark Sussman told The Washington Post in December. (The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia and other organizations around the city are currently in talks with Sussman about bringing the app to Philadelphia, too.)

For private vehicles parking illegally on streets, users will be able to log violations and see how many potential violations other users have reported for specific license plates. 

Governments have begun noticing this trend of citizens fighting for their legal space on the streets. In the spring of 2019, Washington, D.C., council member Charles Allen proposed a new program called
Citizen Safety Enforcement that, according to The Washington Post, “could be a resource to reduce troubling road behaviors that put people’s lives at risk.”

It would give 80 D.C. citizens—10 people per ward—the ability to issue tickets for illegal parking in their community. Of course, there are potentially negative repercussions that come with allowing citizens to ticket, including discrimination and favoritism. 

But, clearly, this is an issue that’s not going away. Motor vehicles and fuel continue to be subsidized, and people buy motor vehicles to store for free in cities, and,
increasingly, there’s nowhere to park.

As Bauman notes, the tickets shown via How’s My Driving PA represent just a fraction of the actual violations happening throughout the city.

“Residents complain to 911 and police and PPA and city council and the mayor: nothing seems to change,” Bauman says. “Car owners enjoy special rights and privileges at the expense of the rest of us.”

“For Philadelphians who are fed up with subservience to car privilege,” Bauman says, “the bot serves as an outlet for their frustration.”

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