Having a car in the city certainly has its perks. You can get around faster (depending on the time of day), spend less time outside during those chilly Chicago winters, and save money on surge pricing for Ubers. At the very least, you can avoid getting up close and personal with some stranger in a packed subway car.
But while driving can be liberating, parking in the city is not for the faint of heart. It’s a mess of obscure laws and sparse availability that has left many a Chicagoan with a towed car and an empty wallet.
If you’ve ever spent what felt like hours trying to find an open parking spot, or nearly ripped your hair out at the sight of yet another ticket stuck to your windshield, this guide is for you. Don’t pay another dime to the Department of Revenue: from basic regulations to little known “gotcha” violations, we’ll help you park with confidence.
Basic Rules and Regulations
Photo Credit: Chicago Tribune
Gone are the days of fishing for quarters to pay outdated meters. The city has updated payboxes that allow credit and debit card payment. The boxes print a receipt which you then display on the lower right hand corner of your vehicle. Or you could always use the ParkChicago App.
Most meters only operate during the day, but hours and rates vary throughout the city, so always check the signs!
Any Chicago resident driving and parking in the city needs to purchase a city parking sticker, even if your vehicle is registered elsewhere
You can purchase these either in person at city hall or online. They cost about $85-200 annually depending on the size and model of your car, with a minimum $200 fine for not having one displayed.
Then again, in our experience, the meter maids have a hard time telling you’re a Chicago resident if your car is still registered somewhere else. Use this information at your own risk.
While stickers used to expire universally on June 30, the City Clerk recently changed the system. City stickers now expire six months after your license plate sticker, so keep track of the time to avoid a fine.
Residential Permit Parking
Certain blocks in Chicago are restricted, allowing only vehicles displaying a residential parking permit for that area – sometimes during certain hours. If your new pad is on one of these streets, your window needs to sport a corresponding permit. They’re not expensive – $25-50 for the year. Bring some proof of your new address (lease, closing statement, utility bill) when you buy your city sticker, and you can add a permit.
Use the city’s Zone Look up App to see if your street qualifies for permit parking.
Need to find a spot for your guest? The city also offers daily residential parking permits. You can buy up to 30 per month at a cost of $16. You can pick these up at your Alderman’s office or at City Hall. Visit the City Clerk website to find a location nearest you.
Tow Zones – Don’t Park Here!
Crosswalks: As a rule of thumb, keep your parked car 20 feet away from any marked crosswalks. If your vehicle is under 6 feet and there’s no crosswalk signage, you should be able to park as close to the crosswalk as you need. Own a larger vehicle like an SUV? It needs to be 20 feet away regardless of whether a sign exists.
Stop signs and fire hydrants: Most of us know this, but it’s worth mentioning that you should keep your car 20 and 15 feet away from them, respectively.
Yellow curbs: These are used to mark no-parking zones in accordance with the regulations above. They’re generally a good way to avoid parking in a tow zone. But there are plenty of no-parking zones without a yellow curb, so once again, check the signs!
Bike and Bus Lanes: Now that protected bike lanes are popping up everywhere in the city, officials are cracking down on drivers who ignore them and park there anyway. Don’t be a jerk – keep these lanes clear so cyclists can get by safely.
Photo Credit: Scott Strazzante/ Red Eye Chicago
Overnight Winter Parking Ban
Here’s something to keep in mind as the snow starts falling. While overnight parking is normally free on most streets, this ends in winter. From December 1 to March 31, the city places an overnight parking ban on most main streets and some residential streets so snow plows can pass through. Make sure you check street signs and avoid parking on these streets from 3 to 7 a.m., because the consequences are pretty bad: violators face a minimum $150 towing fee, a $60 ticket and a $20/day storage fee. Even if there’s no snow on the ground, the ban still applies.
In addition to the overnight parking ban, the city has designated certain main streets as snow routes for clear the way for snow plows when snowfall builds over two inches, regardless of the time of day. So if it’s snowing and a street is marked as such, it’s probably best to err on the side of caution and park elsewhere.
The Dibs System – It’s a common but controversial tradition for Chicagoans to “claim” a parking spot they shoveled out after a snowstorm, usually with a plastic chair (some people get a little more creative).
The practice has been around for almost 50 years, but it’s the source of some ugly neighborhood disputes: some drivers have reportedly vandalized other cars over “dibs violations.”
On one hand, when you’ve put in the time and energy shoveling out your own parking spot on your street, it seems fair that you should get to use it. Then again, a trail of plastic chairs and tacky lawn ornaments lining the curb is quite the eyesore.
But for now, the dibs system is still legal. There’s no city regulations on the dibs system, but city officials now throw out “dibs” markers a few days after the snow melts, so don’t overuse them – unless you want to lose your prized garden gnome.
And violating dibs? Like we said, there’s no laws in the books, but it’s a bad idea. With how heated Chicagoans get over their parking spots, you could end up with furious neighbors, passive aggressive notes or worse!
Between April 1 and mid-November, the city periodically sends street sweepers through areas of Chicago to clean the streets. This is usually communicated through bright orange signs on your street at least 24 hours before expected cleaning, but most areas just operate on a regular schedule. This should be posted on a nearby sign, but you could just sign up for ACR’s own street-cleaning notification service!
Keep your car off the street at all times during street cleaning (usually between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m.), or you could face a $50 fine or get your car towed or relocated to clear space.
Tickets and Towing
It happens to the best of us: We’ve all been robbed by the Department of Revenue in the form of a bright orange envelope on our windshield. The fine varies based on the nature of the violation, but it ranges from $25 to almost $500 – pretty steep.
Here’s a full list of violation fees.
If you do get a ticket, you’ll also receive a Notice of Violation in the mail after seven days reminding you to pay up. Thankfully, you can pay your tickets easily online using the City of Chicago website. Make sure you take care of this sooner than later, though – if you don’t pay within 21 days, the city doubles the fine.
If your wallet is still feeling thin, one option is to call the Department of Finance: they may be able to help you set up a payment plan.
Feel like your car was unfairly ticketed or towed? You’re not out of luck. The city of Chicago allows the contesting of tickets by mail or in person. According to the experts at the Expired Meter, it’s best to schedule an in-person hearing, rather than sending in all your evidence by mail. But once you’ve scheduled it, you don’t have to come in at that date. Stop by any time before the date on your notice once it arrives in the mail. As long as your ticket is in the system, officials should hear your case.
You’ll only win if you raise an allowable defense, though. These include:
1. Inoperable or malfunctioning parking meters
2. Missing or obscured parking signs
3. Your vehicle was stolen at the time of the violation
4. You were not given proper notice prior to street cleaning
5. You were on vacation during street cleaning
At the very least, this can buy you about 6 weeks of time before you have to pay.
The only thing worse than finding a ticket on your windshield is not being able to find your car at all. If you suspect your car was towed, your best bet is to call 311. If your car was impounded, you’ll have to visit one of the city’s auto pounds and pay any fines and fees before you can get your car back. These range from $150-$250 depending on the size of your car. Make sure you bring proper identification as well.
No one wants to see that nasty yellow boot on their tires. Unfortunately, if you have 3 or more unpaid tickets at a time, it could happen to you. Keep in mind that this includes red-light and speeding as well as parking tickets. In addition, if you have 2 or more unpaid tickets that are over a year old, you can also get booted.
If that wasn’t bad enough, if you don’t pay back the total balance of all tickets with 24 hours of getting booted, your car can get towed too. This means you’re facing a $60 boot fee AND towing and storage fees, plus the debt you already owe. The City of Chicago sure doesn’t play games.
Photo Credit: Chicago Tribune
Stop fiddling with meters and pay for street parking right on your iPhone. The City of Chicago has its own iOS/Android App that lets you pay by entering just your license plate number and the zone number. You don’t even need to display a receipt! The service is available throughout the city; just look for a sign with the Park Chicago logo and you’re good to go.
If you’ve got a big event and don’t want to leave parking up to chance, SpotHero can help you out. The app has partnered with lots and garages throughout Chicago to offer deals on parking, and you can use the app to reserve a parking space ahead of time.