Cars sit in a crosswalk.
Seth Wenig/AP

Washington, D.C., considers training a group of residents to give tickets for some parking violations. Would it make streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists?

In Washington, D.C.’s quest for safer streets, one local lawmaker wants to allow some residents to issue tickets themselves when they see a parking violation.

The “citizen safety enforcement” pilot program would train 80 residents—10 people in each of D.C.’s eight wards—to identify and report specific parking offenses via a mobile phone app. From there, the drivers would get a notice with the ability to pay or contest the ticket, much like the process used for photo-enforced red-light cameras.

The proposal comes from D.C. Councilmember Charles Allen as part of a sweeping bill to improve the city’s efforts toward Vision Zero, a commitment to eliminate traffic-related deaths and serious injuries.

The parking infractions might seem minor, like parking in bike lanes or edging into crosswalks or bus lanes. But these actions can put pedestrians, cyclists, and bus riders in danger, forcing them to step or ride into another lane of traffic. Often these violations happen for just a few minutes at a time, leaving little chance for law enforcement to notice, and doing little to prevent drivers from repeating their behavior.

The reaction in Washington has been a bit hyperbolic. In a Washington Post article, critics compared the idea to “citizen cops” and called it “a recipe for disaster.” Another columnist in the paper called it “D.C.’s worst idea ever,” imagining an Orwellian troop leading a parking war.

But the idea of citizen enforcement of road laws has been tried elsewhere. In New York City, citizens can file Citizen’s Air Complaints against idling trucks and buses, and even earn a 25 percent cut of the fine. (Vice News Tonight recently documented the story of an activist who earned $9,000 by filing 120 different complaints.)

Other cities have had local groups tackle parking enforcement in specific spaces. In Malibu, California, a Volunteers on Patrol group had 18 volunteers issue 9,000 tickets last year, the organization told the Post. In Memphis, a local judge recently ruled against the ability of the Blue Suede Brigade, a local tourism and safety organization, to issue parking tickets. Managing street safety might not even have to escalate to issuing citations, though. Since 2003, a citizen radar program in Eugene, Oregon, has sent letters to drivers who exceed speed limits.

The proposal in D.C. comes after there were 36 traffic fatalities in the city last year, a number that has increased each year since 2015, when the District declared its commitment to Vision Zero. The city has already seen 12 traffic-related deaths this year, which is a lower number than it had seen at this point last year.

“We should be acting with a greater sense of urgency and we should be willing to try new things, because what we have been doing hasn’t stopped people from dying,” Allen told The Washington Post. Allen did not respond to CityLab’s requests for comment.

Even without the bill, though, District residents can already track road violations through an app called How’s My Driving. The app, still in beta-testing mode, can be used to flag violations to government agencies like the Department of For-Hire Vehicles, Department of Public Works, or DC 311. Last week, a group of more than 60 people reported nearly 700 violations of blocked bike lanes in just one day as part of their Data-Protected Bike Lane project. It’s up to the agencies if they take any action based on reported violations.

Mark Sussman, a co-creator of the app and one of Allen’s constituents, says digital tools like his could encourage the city to get serious about changing drivers’ mindsets. The two most common excuses Sussman says that the bikers, the most enthusiastic users of the app, hear from parking violators are “just a minute” and “can’t you go around?” Those behaviors put people in danger on the street, he says, and they’re also the most difficult to deter.

“About 30 percent of the submissions are for taxis, Ubers, and Lyfts,” Sussman says. “They might stop for 10 seconds in a bike lane or bus stop, which is impossible for 311 to respond and write a ticket. But if it’s a repeat problem, the [Department of For-Hire Vehicles] could do something about it.”

Sussman says he agrees that the debate should give careful consideration to road confrontations and the surveillance questions that the citizens safety enforcement effort raises. It’s just one part of a bill that’s focused more broadly on road safety.

“It’s not even that we want more people to get citations. We want to be a deterrent to bad behavior that’s putting people in danger,” Sussman says. “These drivers know they’re doing something wrong and even when it’s just a photo, we’ve seen people stop what they’re doing as soon as someone pulls out their phone.”

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