A fine line

Tel Aviv drivers struggle daily to find legal parking spaces - or pay the price.

parking metro 88 (photo credit: )
parking metro 88
(photo credit: )
It is a sight that every driver dreads: a parking ticket under the windshield wiper. In many cases, the meter had just run out or there was no vending machine for parking vouchers and you took the chance, or you thought that no one would give tickets at that hour. Now you're paying the price, anywhere from NIS 100 to NIS 500. Outside Tel Aviv's traffic court on Rehov Weitzman, where alleged parking offenders make their first court appearance to contest fines, people are often angry - and sometimes downright depressed. "The municipality is having a feast from this problem - it's good income," complains Moshe (last name withheld by request), a property manager, hurling a common accusation at the city. At his court hearing, Moshe claimed to have parked late at night near a storefront on a very large sidewalk in such a way that his vehicle obstructed neither pedestrians nor vehicular traffic. By law, a sidewalk is considered any section of a street - whether paved or not - designated not for vehicles but for pedestrians. "There were no signs," he argued, adding that the area could easily have been private property. However, a sidewalk is a sidewalk. The judge gave Moshe the option of pleading not guilty and taking the ticketing officer to court, where Moshe would then have to present proof that the section of pavement where he parked was indeed private property. Moshe paid the NIS 500 fine. "It's so time-consuming that it's not worth it. The trial takes place midday and I would have to take time off work," he explained. Not one of the defendants leaving the courtroom had anything nice to say about the legal process. At the hearings, which are open to the public, a judge presides while a stenographer records the session. A city prosecutor steeped in the city's parking laws, surrounded by files of paperwork except for the actual parking ticket, argues against the claim of the defendant, who states his reasoning at the podium. "I don't think it matters what you say. The municipality has its rules, and they fix them so that you can't really fight the ticket or reduce the fine," argues Moshe. In most cases, defendants appeal not to the law but to common sense. Oded from Herzliya argued that his car was breaking down and, rather than continue to drive to Herzliya, he stayed at a friend's house near Rehov Sheinkin, one of the areas most hard hit by a dearth of parking spaces. He claimed to have searched in vain for a legal parking space for hours, then decided to park his car illegally on a red-and-white pavement and call a tow truck in the morning. By 7:30 a.m., a NIS 500 ticket was on his windshield. He brought receipts from the mechanic to prove that his car had problems, and his fine was lowered to NIS 300 due to "unusual circumstances." Oded was far from pleased. "I was sure I'd win because I thought I had a really good reason. I had no other choice - the car was broken down. This whole legal system is a joke and a big show, but it's a show from both sides - even the defendants sometimes put on a show," he said, adding that he will think twice before reentering the city with his car. After pleading her case unsuccessfully at the podium, one woman began to weep in front of her prosecutor. She had bought a new car but had not yet received a permit allowing her to park freely near her home, and accumulated more than NIS 1,000 in tickets. She had already paid the city NIS 2,000 for previous violations. The law dictated that she owed money regardless. The only comforting suggestion the prosecutor offered her was to pay her fines in installments. Yael, a lawyer who came to protest both her parking fine and the tow-truck tariff, had parked her car in a non-painted "gray" parking space, with one wheel protruding into a red area. She was charged NIS 150 for illegal parking and had to pay NIS 160 to release her car from a municipal pound. She argued that her car should not have been towed, since it did not pose any obstruction that justified towing. Yael cannot help but suspect that parking officials and tow-truck companies collaborate. To receive a refund for the towing charge, she will have to sue the towing company separately. She plans to fight her ticket but thinks the process is unfair from the start. "They give you the feeling that you're always guilty and have to prove your innocence," she says. In the case of parking violations, presumed guilt is allowed in Israel as in other countries including the US. Parking violations are considered "strict liability offenses," which means that the local authority has only to prove that the defendant committed the crime, regardless of his or her motivations or intentions. Tel Aviv-Jaffa is the Israeli city most beset by parking problems. An estimated 400,000 motorized commuters enter the city every day. Daily traffic through Tel Aviv reaches one million vehicles daily - a majority of them from outside the city. Some 390,000 people live in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, on 51 square kilometers of crowded streets and sidewalks. About 270,000 cars are registered as belonging to Tel Aviv residents, an unknown number of them fictitiously. Parking problems do not, apparently, deter Tel Avivians from buying cars. Some 45% of Tel Aviv residents own private vehicles, compared with 26% of Israelis nationally. But they think twice before entering their cars, for fear of losing the parking space. According to the municipal spokesman's office, there are 275,000 parking spaces in Tel Aviv-Jaffa. Some 32,000 are preferred parking spaces (blue/white); 46,000 free spaces (gray); 5,000 limited spaces (gray/red); 10,000 spaces in open lots; 44,000 spaces in private lots; 60,000 spaces in paid lots; and 78,500 spaces in residential lots. Central Tel Aviv - the area enclosed by Jaffa, the Mediterranean coast, the Yarkon river and the Ayalon freeway - lacks sufficient parking spaces to accommodate all its residents and visitors. There are only about 30,000 legal (blue-and-white) parking spaces along central Tel Aviv streets, and another 60,000 spaces in private and public lots. The result is that drivers are inevitably forced to park illegally - especially at night and in the city center - for lack of open space. Municipal parking inspectors write approximately one million parking tickets a year, and about 100,000 cars are towed to municipal lots. "Tel Aviv-Jaffa was built 94 years ago with narrow streets and no thought about parking problems," notes Dr. Moshe Tiomkin, head of Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality's transportation, traffic and parking authority. Although no one likes receiving parking tickets, they are necessary to preserve order in the city, explains Tiomkin. "If cars park on sidewalks, where will people walk? Parking in designated areas prevents accidents." Money, he clearly states, is not a motivation. Tiomkin claims that the city does not profit from parking tickets because expenses outweigh the revenue. According to his figures, the municipal treasury generates NIS 75 million per year from parking fines. (Last January, YNET reported that the city earned NIS 107 million in 2004 and intends to raise its parking revenue to NIS 157 million in 2005, a 400% increase since 1998, when Roni Milo was mayor. Tiomkin could not comment on the discrepancy.) When asked about the city's parking policy, municipal spokesman Hillel Partok issued the following statement: "The Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality would prefer not to give even one parking ticket a year, and certainly not to tow any cars, as long as law and order is preserved and sidewalks remain open to pedestrians. Contrary to popular opinion, the city does not make any money from the fines and towing fees but rather succeeds in covering expenses for the joint supervision and maintenance of the parking system in the city." Asked about a situation in which a car is parked late at night on a sidewalk in a way that clearly poses no obstruction to pedestrian or vehicle traffic, Tiomkin replied: "If you asked me, I wouldn't write a ticket. It's an issue of common sense." Yet he agreed that if one were to fight the ticket, the law - not common sense - prevails. Nor does he see a solution to Tel Aviv's parking woes. "We won't solve the problem. Whoever lives in Tel Aviv has to know that it's a problem," he said. Tiomkin suggests that to alleviate the problem, residents must use more public transportation or two-wheeled vehicles, such as bicycles or scooters. The city is currently developing 100 km of bike paths, and plans are underway for an underground railway that will travel from Petah Tikva to Bat Yam, slated for completion in 2012. He noted that the municipality has taken measures to alleviate the parking problem in recent years. Tel Aviv residents can now park in several Tel Aviv lots for half-price and purchase an Easy Park electronic parking meter that allows them to park for up to three hours for 63 agorot per hour, down from NIS 2.40 in the past. On the other hand, fines for several parking violations were more than doubled in August 2004. Tiomkin explains that the hike was a preventive measure meant to discourage illegal parking. While the Easy Park and permit zoning have made life easier for some residents, the parking issue continues to anger Tel Aviv drivers, and parking remains a thorn in city life, especially when one NIS 500 parking ticket constitutes almost 10% of the average Israeli's salary. Building more legal and inexpensive parking lots in the city center does not appear to be at the top of the municipal agenda. Tiomkin pointed out that the city has proposed building underground parking lots beneath Rabin Square and the Habimah Theater in the past, but local residents' objections stymied the projects. Free parking, he says, is not an automatic right. "When you buy a car, you also pay for insurance and gas, and that's okay - so why not pay for parking?" Outside the courthouse Moshe, still peeved by his verdict, thinks that free parking is not a privilege but a necessity like electricity and water. He suggests civil disobedience to counter what he believes is a big money-making scheme. He acknowledges that laws should protect people but insists that tickets should not be given in circumstances where parking defined as "illegal" presents no danger or inconvenience. "Parking should be a top priority of anyone in office because it angers everyone," says Jerusalem resident, Ami, who often drives into Tel Aviv. While he also faces parking challenges in the capital, he acknowledges that the situation is much worse in Tel Aviv. "Everyone talks about it and everyone's angry. If someone speeds dangerously on the highway, you know they deserve to be punished. But if you park for just a few minutes longer than you're supposed to, you know they just want your money," he says. Parking tips * Know the parking rules and read signs carefully. * If you think the parking space is illegal, it probably is. Find a lot. * Don't rely on the ticketing officer's compassion or common sense. * If you appeal a ticket, base your argument on law, not common sense or emotion, unless you can cite very unusual circumstances. Bear in mind that a court hearing may take up an entire afternoon. * Before you go to court, write a diplomatic letter to the parking and traffic department (22 Rehov Sha'arit Yisrael, Tel Aviv-Jaffa 68165) * Don't count on the situation improving in the near future. Parking annoyances are often a matter of tough luck and are part of city life. NIS 100 violations: Metered parking without voucher or Easy Park, in preferred parking for permit holders, double-parking, parking near/on an intersection or crosswalk, or in a way that obstructs/delays traffic. NIS 250 violations: Parking in a bus or taxi station, "No stopping" or "No parking" areas, against specifically posted instructions or with two wheels on the sidewalk. NIS 500 violations: Parking with four wheels on a sidewalk or two wheels on a sidewalk, leaving less than 130 cm clear for pedestrians, or in a space reserved for handicapped parking. Gross mismanagement Municipal practices have been brought to public attention in recent months by the probe into parking lot owner Reuven Gross, nicknamed "The King of Parking," who is accused of bribing city officials. In June, Gross was arrested for involvement in a crime organization. The police accused him of money laundering, forgery and bribery. The well-connected businessman is suspected of bribing city officials for information that would help him secure tenders issued by the municipal park lot company, Ahuzat Hof. Ahuzat Hof CEO Yaakov Meir, city councilor Yeshayahu Drori and Gross's daughter Maya were also arrested in connection with the affair The case has also involved the mayors of Ramat Gan, Haifa, and Tel Aviv. The police claim to have enough evidence to indict Bar, and his file has been handed to the state prosecutor. Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav and Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai were questioned under caution as to whether they received perks from Gross in exchange for political donations. Gross contributed to Huldai's 1998 election campaign. In late November, the parking lot company Hatzlacha, which owns dozens of lots throughout the country, succeeded over Gross in winning an Ahuzat Hof tender to operate five large car parks in Tel Aviv. Gross had placed his bid for the tenders via a third party.