Thomas Dworzak / Magnum Photos

The Lawless State of New York’s Streets

Benjamin Arnav

January 10, 2024

New data on how the NYPD fails to pursue many parking complaints — and how bike lanes have become overrun with mopeds

New data on how the NYPD fails to pursue many parking complaints — and how bike lanes have become overrun with mopeds

Whether the issue is parking or the movement of mopeds, New York City’s streets increasingly feel like they’re governed not by laws but by oft-ignored suggestions, and the consequences of this failure are severe.

On a sunny day last summer, as I left Prospect Park, I was confronted with what feels like an increasingly common sight: an SUV illegally parked in the crosswalk, blocking the curb. I was annoyed, as lately it seems as though traffic rules designed to keep us safe have become more of a suggestion. I wasn't in a rush — so with a few taps on the city’s NYC311 app, I filed a complaint. 

When I checked a few hours later, I was told the police had ticketed the scofflaw, so in my mind, a semblance of justice had been served. Except when I followed up several weeks later, there was no record of a ticket ever being issued. 

I soon found this was hardly an aberration. By cross-referencing 311 data with Department of Finance records — the agency responsible for collecting payment — I found that a third of cases where the NYPD claims to have written a ticket after a complaint could not be matched to a violation number. 

Neither the Department of Finance nor the NYPD responded to multiple requests seeking to explain the discrepancies. 

If data is unreliable, then so are the policy decisions based on it. Taken alone, 311 data shows just over 15% of parking grievances resulted in a ticket since 2014. On closer inspection, that number drops to about 10% when missing violations are taken into account. There are a host of reasons that could account for the gap, from the benign, like data entry issues, to the more concerning, such as police improperly claiming to have issued tickets that don’t exist. There is a growing body of anecdotal evidence that the NYPD closes illegal parking complaints without taking action at their discretion.

Staten Island had the highest percentage of 311 complaints where a ticket could not be found–at just over 44% over the past decade. Out of all ZIP codes in the city, Brooklyn’s East New York had the third highest number of complaints that could not be matched — around 2,300 — but more concerning was the fact this represents nearly half of all illegal parking grievances in the neighborhood.

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For some New Yorkers, haphazard parking is a minor inconvenience. For others — parents with strollers, those using a wheelchair or other mobility device — it is a wall of steel. Blocked bike lanes that force riders into car traffic have proven fatal

Police may have become uninterested in traffic enforcement due to an ingrained culture of quotidian illegal parking that happens at precinct houses across the city. Those streets have become a chronic assemblage of cruisers parked on sidewalks, blocked bike lanes and public space reconfigured on a whim to accommodate officers’ personal vehicles.

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Fewer than 2% of the reports of illegal parking made within a block of a station house in the past decade have resulted in police writing a ticket, according to city records, despite a surge in complaints. There are even cases of those who frequently file grievances being harassed by local cops. Illegal parking complaints made to 311 are routed to the NYPD; a message tells users of the app as much. All of this comes as the number of tickets for parking violations issued by the NYPD, as opposed to civilian traffic enforcement agents, has plummeted, despite a steady increase in civilian complaints. Tickets issued have fallen by more than two thirds since 2014, although they have begun to rise since hitting a low in the period from July 2020 to June 2021.

If only parking were the only problem. It’s not only on the curbs that New York’s streets have become more chaotic; while riding my bike over the Brooklyn Bridge, I’ve experienced near misses with countless vehicles without license plates, typically gas-powered scooters that are banned from bike lanes. It’s impossible to miss the proliferation of e-bikes and gas-powered mopeds darting around the city, fueled by a surge in demand for food delivery, their number unknowable given most are unregistered. Indeed, there is both City Council and state legislation to tame their often illegal, dangerous behavior.

The East River bridge crossings have become a bottleneck where crashes and close calls are commonplace, leading some to give up cycling altogether. Last spring, a friend arrived at the aftermath of a collision between two mopeds and a bicycle that left a channel of blood flowing down the Manhattan Bridge bike path and at least one person carried away on a stretcher. 

On average, at least one moped every five minutes was observed illegally crossing the Queensboro Bridge bike path, essentially guaranteeing an encounter for most cyclists and pedestrians since it takes longer than that to traverse the span.

This again led me to try to somehow quantify the scale of a problem I felt deeply. I trained a custom AI model to detect when mopeds were illegally riding in bike lanes, using an existing network of Department of Transportation cameras.

I focused on one of the most dangerous crossings: the path where pedestrians, bicycles and now mopeds and e-bikes are forced to share one narrow path across the 59th Street/Queensboro Bridge.

On average, I spotted at least one moped illegally crossing the Queensboro Bridge bike path every five minutes, essentially guaranteeing an encounter for most cyclists and pedestrians since it takes longer than that to traverse the span. Images were recorded over the course of a week in late autumn in three-hour periods in the afternoon.

The model also found more than 50 mopeds in the Brooklyn Bridge bike lane, seemingly undeterred by a police SUV that is perpetually parked at the foot of the Brooklyn side of the bridge. Mopeds, cars and delivery trucks were also recorded illegally using bike lanes and pedestrian plazas across several neighborhoods in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

This is an imperfect analysis. The image resolution of the cameras is insufficient; they only produce a still image every two to four seconds instead of a constant video feed. Moreover, DOT frequently changes where the cameras point and the vast majority are focused on vehicle lanes in order to monitor car traffic flow. 

Even collecting the images to train the model was done ad hoc after I was met with bureaucratic stonewalling when I requested access to the camera feeds, something that in theory is publicly available. But some insight is better than none, and this is a proof of concept of what is possible and perhaps could lead to automated enforcement which has proven extremely effective in reducing speeding.

While the Department of Transportation has a pilot program that seems to be an improved version of the model I built, details are scant and pedestrians can hardly afford to wait years for a fix.

City Hall has responded with few ideas, and the void has been filled with brute force by the police, who confiscate mopeds in occasional stings that do little to change wider behavior. While police wrote about 29,000 tickets to moped riders in the first eight months of last year, the 72% increase over 2022 works out to roughly one ticket per precinct per day. These operations tend to hit some of the most vulnerable New Yorkers, delivery workers who are overwhelmingly recent migrants to the city, with a significant financial burden. 

There is no strategy for solving the problem, just tactics. 

The solution requires a coordinated response with a focus on safety rather than punishment. Bills at the state level to close a loophole that currently allows mopeds to be sold unregistered should be passed immediately, coupled with a serious effort to register those already on our streets. After that, the task of keeping mopeds in the proper lane could be handled with automated enforcement, as is already done with red light and speed cameras. And to instill honesty in the 311 system, a simple technological fix could require officers to enter a ticket number when closing a complaint.  

So far, Mayor Eric Adams and his administration have only reacted to road deaths with localized improvements. It’s time to stop waiting for the next tragedy and instead take the lead on street order and safety.