As the holiday season ushers in a crush of delivery trucks that wind up double-parking and clogging traffic, a Queens City Council member is renewing his call to end a special parking program that allows companies to pay reduced traffic fines as long as they agree not to contest the summonses in court.
Known as the Stipulated Fine Program, the practice was created 15 years ago under the Bloomberg administration to alleviate the burden on the city's traffic courts, but it has increasingly come under the spotlight as New York City grapples with the e-commerce economy's toll on roads, safety and the environment. All told, more than than 1.5 million packages are delivered daily in the city, for which delivery companies pay out hundreds of thousands of violations a year.
"We’re seeing our streets becoming more and more congested," said Costa Constantinides, a City Council member who last year introduced a bill to halt the policy. "More and more companies are using this as a shield to get out of paying fines."
Pointing to the more than 52,000 violations issued for blocking bike lanes under the program over the last two years, Constantinides said the practice "flies in the face of" of the city's Vision Zero initiative, which seeks to reduce the number of traffic deaths. "This is part of a larger conversation to make [city streets] safer," he said.
Back in 2016, Albany lawmakers introduced a bill to cancel the program, which also generates state revenue.
But criticism intensified earlier this year after the Independent Budget Office released an analysis that showed that the 10 most heavily fined firms, lead by shipping giants UPS and Fedex, saved as much as $20.4 million on their summonses in 2018 as a result of the Stipulated Fine Program. Overall, since 2010, the Stipulated Fine Program, along with another abatement policy for smaller companies, have averaged over $54 million in payments annually for about 828,000 parking violations a year. In 2015, the city collected its peak revenue from the two programs—over $61 million for nearly 1 million violations.
UPS had the most infractions by far in 2018: 254,868 summonses compared to Fedex, which came in second with 114,005.
Jonathan Rosenberg, the IBO's director of budget review who authored the single-page report, said he decided to examine the program in the wake of its first overhaul by the Department of Finance announced in 2018, which raised the fines for certain infractions, such as double parking and blocking an intersection. In some cases, fines for some violations had been reduced to zero under the program. For example, companies were able to avoid paying the $115 penalty for double parking outside Midtown. Under the changes, which went into effect last December, they now pay $60.
To date, Constantinides's bill has 31 sponsors. Transportation Alternatives, the bike and pedestrian advocacy group, has also expressed support of the legislation. “We need to incentive the safe operation of large vehicles and trucks on our streets,” Marco Conner, the organization's co-deputy director, told the Daily News. “We need to incentive companies to do the right thing and be stewards of our streets in a way that doesn’t harm people.”
In response, the mayor's office defended the program. “Companies in the Stipulated Fine Program waive their right to a hearing and agree to pay roughly the same rate as those that end up contesting," said Laura Feyer, a spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio. "The program is successful and does not cost the city revenue. Hearing each of these tickets would cost the City more. We will continue to discuss the program and the bill with the City Council.”
Asked to comment on the bill and the impact of its delivery trucks, UPS emailed Gothamist a statement. "Every day, UPS drivers face the same challenge as thousands of other delivery drivers – trying to find safe, legal parking in America’s busiest city," spokesperson said. "We’re actively engaged with city officials and looking for solutions that make it easier to deliver while reducing congestion and enhancing sustainability methods and quality of life for New Yorkers."
Other cities are wrestling with the same problem and considering more far-reaching remedies. Paris, which currently sees 250,000 packages a day, is weighing a proposal by its mayor to charge companies like Amazon a fee to offset the impact of its truck deliveries. In an open letter published in the French newspaper Le Monde, Mayor Anne Hidalgo described Manhattan as “the nightmare that awaits us.”
In an example that shipping companies can be part of the solution, in Seattle, UPS last year launched its first cargo e-bike system, which features removable cargo containers attached to battery-powered electric bikes.
Sarah Kaufman, an associate director of the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University, said it makes sense for New York City to revisit the parking program in light of the dramatic growth of truck traffic.
She said while the city has been incentivizing off-hours delivery to reduce traffic during the day, the city should reconsider the way curb space is used by taking away parking spots reserved solely for cars.
The days of free shipping, she added, may eventually come to an end. Citing the cost of congested streets to the city's economic productivity, air quality and laborers, she said, "There is a real cost to shipping."