When then-Mayor Richard M. Daley ushered in Chicago’s red-light cameras nearly two decades ago, he said they would help the city curb dangerous driving. “This is all about safety, safety of pedestrians, safety of other drivers, passengers, everyone,” he said.
As they increased camera enforcement, his successors shared those sentiments. “My goal is only one thing, the safety of our kids,” Rahm Emanuel said in 2011, as he lobbied for the introduction of speed cameras. And in 2020, Lori Lightfoot assured residents her expansion of the program was “about making sure that we keep communities safe.”
But for all of their safety benefits, the hundreds of cameras that dot the city — and generate tens of millions of dollars a year for City Hall — have come at a steep cost for motorists from the city’s Black and Latino neighborhoods. A ProPublicaAnalysing millions of citations showed that ticket rates for households in majority Black ZIP codes and Hispanic ZIP code received tickets at about twice the rate as those in white areas between 2015-2019.
The consequences have been especially punishing in Black neighborhoods, which have been hit with more than half a billion dollars in penalties over the last 15 years, contributing to thousands of vehicle impoundments, driver’s license suspensions and bankruptcies, according to ProPublica’s analysis.
“We felt the brunt of it the way white people didn’t,” said Olatunji Oboi Reed, a longtime activist for racial equity in transportation in Chicago who has received a handful of camera tickets over the years. “Fortunately, I’ve always been in a situation where I can survive financially, unlike many Black and brown people in the city; one ticket is throwing their whole finances in a hurricane.”
The ticketing gap was widened by the coronavirus pandemic. Latino and black workers have been far less likelyThey are more likely to be able to work remotely than others, which means they are forced to get in their cars more often. 2020 ProPublicaThe ticketing rate for households living in majority-black ZIP codes rose to more than three times the rate for households living in majority-white areas. The increase was smaller for households living in majority-Hispanic ZIP Codes.
Similar income and racial disparities have been documented in other areas of camera ticketing. Rochester, New York: Officials eliminated the city’s red-light camera programIn 2016, this was partly due to the fact that drivers from low-income areas received the most tickets, and the financial damage outweighed any safety benefits. Miami ended its programIn 2017, the fines were criticized by low-income residents who felt unfairly weighed down by them. And in Washington, D.C., racial justice advocates are researching the city’s camera-ticketing program after a local think tankIn 2018, The Washington PostLast year, cameras in Black neighborhoods issued a high proportion of tickets.
Although some cities have eliminated their camera programs, automated enforcement has been gaining support elsewhere in the aftermath of the nation’s racial reckoning following the death of George Floyd in 2020 at the hands of police. From CaliforniaTo Virginia, citizens groups, safety organizations, elected officials and others are pointing to cameras as a “race-neutral” alternative to potentially biased — and, for many Black men, fatal — police traffic stops.
Cameras may get more funding: federal infrastructure billAct passed last fall allows states the ability to spend federal dollars for traffic cameras in school and work zones.
Officials in Chicago have been aware of disparities since April 2020 when two professors from the University of Illinois Chicago did initial research that showed that cameras send the most tickets towards predominantly Black ZIP codes. They were then hired by the city to investigate further.
Six months later, Lightfoot — who campaigned in part on ending what she called the city’s “addiction” to fines and fees — proposed that Chicago expand camera ticketing by lowering the speeds at which cameras will issue citations. Lightfoot called it a public safety initiative, particularly in light the rise in traffic fatalities caused by the pandemic. But many observers viewed it as a money grab. The City Council approved this measure as part the 2021 annual budget.
Racial disparities continued to exist after the change took effect in March. ProPublica found.
When asked why the city expanded the program despite knowing of the racial disparities, Dan Lurie, Lightfoot’s policy chief, said the administration saw that traffic fatalities were “at epidemic levels” and that was a “deep concern” to the mayor. “We feel strongly,” he said, “that cameras are a tool in the toolkit to help alleviate that.”
The city is not considering eliminating the cameras or shrinking the program, though Lurie said the administration would “evaluate” cameras at locations where there’s evidence they do not reduce crashes.
This is a summary of the UIC research. ProPublicaLast week, the racial disparities between red-light and speed camera ticketing were confirmed. However, most speed cameras increase safety.
Officials from the city said that they are working to reduce the financial damage caused by camera tickets. They pointed out a pilot programThis reduces the cost of fines and allows some debt forgiveness for residents with low income. The initiative, which was announced last January without any mention of racial inequities embedded into the camera program’s camera program, will begin at the end of March.
Lurie said the administration has been grappling with the “twin challenges” of improving traffic safety while “very intentionally ensuring that the burdens of fines and fees as a result of those kinds of efforts do not fall disproportionately on Black and brown residents.”
Ironically, many of the factors that contribute ticketing disparities, like wider streets and fewer sidewalks for low-income communities of color make these neighborhoods more dangerous to pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists. According to a 2017 city report black Chicagoans are more likely to be involved in traffic accidents than whites.
The city’s latest transportation planThe focuses on racial equality and outlines a variety of projects such as improving crosswalks or building more bike lanes. City officials also said they plan to install more flashing signs that show drivers how fast they’re going — devices known to help reduce speeds.
Lurie acknowledged the need to address the road infrastructure that contributes dangerous driving. That way, he said, “Pedestrians are safer, you’re safer and no one’s getting a fine. That’s the ideal outcome here. We are dealing with, in many ways, after-the-fact consequences of streets that need to be rethought and redesigned.”
Chicago’s automated camera program began in 2003, after a 30-day “experiment” on opposite ends of Western Avenue recorded some 4,500 red-light violations. Over the next ten-year, Daley administration installed cameras in dozens of intersections across the city.
Emanuel extended the program even further in 2013, adding speed cameras.
The Lightfoot-era expansion occurred primarily by lowering the speed limit threshold to tickets and not by adding more cameras.
Today, motorists are monitored by cameras at close to 300 locations around the city, making Chicago’s automated traffic enforcement program one of the largest in the country. Both red-light and speed cameras are distributed roughly evenly among the city’s Black, Latino and white neighborhoods.
The cameras capture images of a vehicle’s license plate as well as video of the alleged infraction, which is reviewed by a third-party vendor before a ticket is sent to the vehicle owner.
The city issues around 1 million camera tickets each year, roughly evenly divided between the two types. Since their inception, cameras have generated over $1.3 billion in revenue.
Research has shown that cameras reduce serious accidents and alter driver behavior. Northwestern University researchers found in 2017 that the number of T-bone crashes — where one vehicle drives into the side of another — fell after red-light cameras were installed, as fewer people ran red lights. According to the executive summary of UIC associate professors Stacey Sutton, and Nebiyou Tulahun’s latest research, speed cameras decreased the number of fatal crashes and those resulting in severe injury by 15%.
The program has been criticized by many as more of a revenue generator than a public safety measure. Tickets for running a red signal or driving 11 or more mph faster than the limit can cost $100. Late penalties can add up to $244. 35-cent citations for driving between 6-10 MPH over the limit are required. Late penalties may result in a $85 increase.
Almost half of the tickets received by low-income residents end up incurring additional penalties, according to the research by Sutton and Tilahun, both of whom are in UIC’s College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs. 17% of tickets for upper-income residents result in additional fees.
Residents have protested for years that camera tickets are unfair to poor people who can’t pay the fines on time and avoid heavy late penalties or collections fees.
Reed, who runs Equiticity, an advocacy-research organization that focuses on transportation equity, became more concerned about the issue after he realized how heavily the city relied on enforcement to eliminate traffic fatalities. Vision Zero Chicago planPublication Date: June 2017.
For years, he has urged the city to stop ticketing Black and Latino cyclists for riding on sidewalks. Instead, he urged them to improve the infrastructure in those areas. He is aware that traffic accidents are a major cause of death for people of color in Chicago and all across the country. But he says he doesn’t think the city can ticket its way to safer streets.
Reed and others asked city transportation officials to eliminate racial and geographic disparities in camera ticketing and emails. Reed claimed that the city never committed.
“We didn’t subscribe to this notion that the answer to improved traffic safety is a punitive approach,” he said. “The root cause of traffic violence in our society that is disproportionately impacting Black and brown people is structural racism.”
The February following, ProPublica reported on how debt from parking and camera tickets disproportionately piled up in Chicago’s Black neighborhoods, sending tens of thousands of people into bankruptcy. The reporting has prompted significant reformsAcross the state
This is the first time. ProPublicaThis analysis has looked at the disparities in camera tickets, not just their financial consequences. The analysis relies on information obtained through public records requests from the city’s ticket database, including the ZIP code associated with the vehicle registration for every camera ticket issued since the program’s birth in 2003 through mid-2021.
ProPublica’s main analysis relies on ticketing from 2015 through 2019 to correspond with the most recent five-year census survey data. Because there is no reliable measure of motorists and vehicles by ZIP codes, ticketing rates were calculated using the number of households in each zip code.
The data shows that motorists hailing from Black and Latino communities have been subject to a higher number of camera tickets. This disparity persists if you include motorists who live in Cook County, but drive in the city, or speed warnings for first-time violators. ProPublicaWarnings were not included in the main analysis as they do not carry any financial penalties.
Between 2015-2019, Chicago residents received approximately 3.1 million camera ticket. The highest percentage, or 38%, went to motorists living in majority-Black ZIP codes. These ZIP codes, however, account for 27%.
The disparity in the majority-Hispanic ZIP code areas is less severe, which account 19% of tickets and 16% each of households.
Households in the city’s majority Black ZIP codes received about four citations per household over that time period. That’s more than twice the rate for households in majority-white ZIP codes, which received fewer than two tickets. Hispanic ZIP code households received more than three tickets per family during the same period.
Sutton & Tilahun compared data from census-tract levels tickets for their study. They reached a similar conclusion.
Rodney Perry is a victim of the ticketing cycle. The 28-year old entrepreneur quit his job as a logistics manager last spring to start a digital production and marketing company. The work leads him to drive past the city’s cameras more than he did in his previous job. Perry received eight speeding tickets and three for running red lights last year. Of the speeding tickets, five were for going just 6 or 7 mph over the limit — speeds that would not have triggered a ticket before Lightfoot lowered the threshold for tickets.
He paid some of the fines, but eventually, it amounted to more than $700. Money he said he didn’t have. He tried to get on a city payment plan but said he couldn’t figure out how to do that online. The city immobilized Perry’s 2018 Jeep Cherokee because he didn’t pay his tickets in November. A yellow Denver boot was placed over one of his front wheels outside his apartment. Perry had to borrow money to pay off the Tennessee sister who was his aunt to remove the boot. The process came with additional fines.
“Family doesn’t ever want to see you have any moment of struggle,” said Perry, who took on an extra job at a restaurant to help pay off the tickets and make ends meet. “It’s a financial impact, but mentally it’s where I was affected the most. Mentally and emotionally.”
Perry stated that he takes full responsibility for getting tickets. But he can’t help but notice something every time he drives through majority-Black neighborhoods: There are fewer pedestrians and more vacant lots and industrial areas.
“It’s almost like you feel like there is nothing there. Nothing to slow you down,” he said.
Perry is greeted by bustling commerce and more pedestrians when he enters densely-populated Latino neighborhoods. And in majority white neighborhoods, there are even more pedestrians and “a stop light every few blocks. A stop sign is placed between them. Crosswalks,” he said. “There’s a million reasons to stop once you pass downtown on the North Side.”
He wonders if the appearance of a neighborhood affects whether a driver will be issued a ticket.
Consider the speed camera on West 127th Street, a few blocks east of South Halsted Street in West Pullman, a majority-Black neighborhood on the city’s Far South Side.
The camera is located next to a steel plant that has been fenced in, and overlooks a busy stretch of road with four lanes. The speed limit is 30 mph. What allowed the city to place a camera there — as speed cameras are only allowed near parks or schools — is a bike trail that cuts across the street a little west of the device. It’s not a frequently used path; on a bright October morning, not one cyclist passed through in the half hour or so a pair of reporters observed the trail. Neither pedestrians nor bicyclists walked that stretch of West 127th Street. Only one side of the street has a sidewalk.
Hundreds of semitrucks and passenger cars roared by.
A camera is also located 20 miles north on a two-lane stretch West Montrose Avenue near Horner Park, a whiter, more wealthy neighborhood of Irving Park.
The speed limit here is also 30 mph. To maneuver around the concrete pedestrian island and bright green and white crosswalks leading into the park, drivers must slow down. Reporters encountered more than a dozen pedestrians in the same October morning.
2020: West 127th Street camera issued 22,389 tickets to motorists who drove 11 mph or more above the speed limit. Each ticket cost $100.
The one on West Montrose Avenue Five.
Jesus Barajas is an assistant professor in U.C. Davis’ Department of Environmental Science and Policy. He has been studying transportation and infrastructure in Chicago. Wide roads, without what are often called calming steps, such as the one on West Montrose Avenue, encourage speeding.
“If it feels like a highway, you’re going to go 50,” Barajas said.
ProPublicaIt was found that all the speed cameras that issued the highest number of tickets for exceeding the limit by 11 mph or greater between 2015 and 2019 were located on four-lane roads. Six of those locations are located in majority Black census tracts.
Eighteen of the 10 locations with the lowest number of tickets were found on streets with two lanes. Only two of the 10 locations where the least amount of tickets were issued are located in majority Black census tracts. (The analysis was limited to cameras located near parks because these devices are more active for longer hours and days than those used by schools. This means that they issue the vast majority tickets.
Another factor is the density of residential areas. Experts said that denser neighborhoods have higher levels of traffic, more cars, and more pedestrians. All these factors cause motorists’ intuition to slow down.
Chicago has seen a significant exodus of Black residents over recent decades. However, Black neighborhoods are much denser than their white counterparts.
ProPublicaIt was found that 10 locations with speed camera issued the most tickets were located in census tracts with an average of 6,400 people per square mile. The 10 locations with speed cameras issuing the least tickets were located in tracts that had an average density of more than twice that.
Another factor that influences ticketing is the proximity to expressways. These expressways were built decades ago over Black communities in Chicago, and throughout the country. Seventeen of the ten intersections with red-light camera cameras that issued most tickets are within blocks of an expressway entrance. Sixteen of the 10 intersections with red-light cameras are located in majority Black census tracts. None of the intersections where red-light camera issued the most tickets were near expressways and only one is in a majority Black tract.
Sutton & Tilahun found that ticketing rates are highest for red-light cameras within 350 feet of freeways. Additionally, the executive summary of their paper showed that Black neighborhoods account disproportionately for all cameras in close proximity to freeways.
Researchers from UIC found that red-light camera operators in areas with high violent crime rates issued more tickets. “Perhaps people drive differently in those areas,” Tilahun said. “They might rush through intersections because they feel unsafe.”
According to Census estimates, Black residents are just as likely to drive to work than white residents. However, they have longer commutes to work regardless of how they get there, according to a study done by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. This agency works on planning issues in northeastern Illinois.
Alejo Alvarado, a transportation planner, stated that low-income Black neighborhoods are often without basic amenities like pharmacies, grocery stores, and hospitals. This forces drivers to stay in their cars for longer periods of times. has written aboutHow replacing traffic stops by speed cameras in Oakland, California could adversely affect low-income and minority drivers.
“There’s usually not retail investment or housing investment, so a lot of these communities, they’re food deserts. They don’t have the amenities they need,” Alvarado said. “I can’t just walk down the street to get my groceries; I’ve got to drive somewhere else.”
Lightfoot ran for office in 2019. she promised to reform the city’s system of ticketing and debt collection. “We cannot accept a system that has such a devastating impact on low-income people and people of color,” she said.
The mayor has fulfilled her promise. The city ended a long-standing practice of seeking driver’s license suspensions for unpaid parking tickets, and state lawmakers ended suspensions for any kind of ticket debt, including for unpaid camera tickets. The city has made ticket payments more accessible. It used to be cheaper for motorists with large amounts of ticket debt to file bankruptcy than to enter into a payment plan.
So when Lightfoot proposed an expansion of the city’s speed-camera program in October 2020, potentially sending tens of thousands of new tickets to the same populations already overburdened by fines and fees, it was widely seen as hypocritical. Some transportation safety advocates, including the influential Active Transportation Alliance, even criticised Lightfoot.
Although the mayor made a case for traffic safety, Kyle Whitehead, spokesperson for the alliance, said that his group believed the proposal was more about revenue because it was made within the context of the city budget. What’s more, he said, the change would be “exposing more people to tickets without really understanding the racial equity impact of that change.”
But Chicago officials were able to understand. When Lightfoot proposed the expansion, the city already had Sutton and Tilahun’s preliminary findings. Sutton was shocked to hear about the expansion.
“There’s a disconnect between the data and the politics, the evidence and politics,” Sutton said of the change. “It doesn’t align with the huge burdens that we see in the data.”
Lurie defended the mayor’s decision to expand the program even though the city had evidence of its disparate impact on communities of color. Lightfoot said that he was motivated by a spike in traffic deaths in 2020, which had been a decade high.
“If someone is a reckless driver, that is a fundamental concern to the mayor,” Lurie said. “That fine and fee, we believe, can help change behavior. That fine and fee should not put someone in a place where they are unable to pay it, where they are making choices about whether they could put food on the table instead of paying that fine or fee.”
The impact of lowering speeds was immense. In 2021, the city issued more than 1.4 million tickets to motorists going 6 to 10 mph over the limit, more citations of that kind than it had issued in the combined previous eight years of the program’s existence. If paid, the tickets could bring in $50 million in revenue.
However, not everyone can pay their bills. This can lead to financial ruin. Late payments can result in a boot being placed upon a car. This could mean that you are unable to work for days, making it more difficult to catch up on the debt. While unpaid tickets may no longer result in a license suspension, it’s easy for Chicagoans to get caught in the cycle.
“We end up fixing something and creating a different kind of harm,” said Priya Sarathy Jones, the national policy and campaigns director at the Fines and Fees Justice Center, which sees cameras playing a larger role in cities’ efforts to prevent traffic fatalities. “It removes police from having contact with predominantly Black men and Black people, but you’re also creating an entirely parallel universe of harm.”
Sutton, who has long studied the impact of “race neutral” policies on communities of color, said Chicago’s experience should be a cautionary tale for cities considering camera programs.
“It’s the same cycle, right, in terms of their interaction with the state and with the justice system,” Sutton said. “But the way you enter that is not through a police officer, but through this supposedly unbiased technology. … I don’t think there’s a technological fix to an unjust system.”