It’s a particular brand of villain who would illegally park in a space that—as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act—has been reserved for someone who really needs it. But as I recently learned, there are heroes out there too, heroes who don’t wear capes, but rather City of Houston–issued trucker hats.
The City of Houston’s Volunteer Parking Enforcement Program mints these unsung crusaders. Starting in 1995, the parking department began enlisting the public to help catch drivers who illegally park in and/or obstruct ADA-accessible spots by deputizing volunteers to write tickets. I decided join this group, which, at last count, exceeds 400 proud, hat-bearing Houstonians—the uniform also includes a blue lanyard and, upon request, a reflective vest—by taking one of the free, four-hour training courses the city holds a few times a month.
My class took place in an EaDo conference room. There were three other citizens there that day: a retired UPS driver and two employees from the City of Humble hoping to implement a similar program there. The instructor, Administrative Specialist Abel Maldonado, told us he gets plenty of retirees, along with housewives, Uber drivers, flight attendants, plumbers, and homebuilders. Several volunteers, he explained, even have disabilities themselves, with some writing tickets from their wheelchairs.
You might be surprised to learn of the power we volunteers wield. According to Section 681 of the Texas Transportation Code, we can slap violators with the highest fine of any City of Houston–issued parking ticket: $500. And because apparently a lot of people are blocking accessible parking spaces in Houston, the fines add up quickly. The current volunteer record is some 1,700 tickets written per month; even if, as Maldonado explained, roughly half of all volunteer-issued tickets end up dismissed, that’s $425,000 raised in a month from a single individual’s surveillance.
There is no talking your way into a reduced fine or community service for these tickets. Dilly-dally on payment for more than 30 days, and you’ll get charged another $100. Push it past 90 days, and you’re on the city’s boot list—another $175-plus to remove.
It’s probably for the best that there are very clear rules to deflate a person’s nascent hero complex. One bolded, highlighted portion of the training states that volunteers “may not carry a weapon while performing duties.” Additionally, we may not “in any way attempt to arrest or detain any person,” or accept any kind of bribe, monetary or sexual—and yes, Houstonians have been known to try both.
The materials also note that “citizens will get upset” when they encounter our work. We were warned not to park our own wheels near a vehicle we’re citing, lest we risk a punched-out window. Drivers are also wont to throw water bottles and fists at heroes ticket writers. Our first citations, Maldonado recommended, would be best executed at a movie theater, where by the time we scrawled them and gathered photo evidence, the driver would likely still be shoveling popcorn inside the multiplex. After his presentation concluded, we headed out to the parking lot to practice writing citations before leaving with our new photo ID, trucker hat, and book of 20 blank tickets.
I thought I’d go out into the world and start writing citations, but although I carry the tickets and uniform in my glove compartment, the truth is I have yet to write one. I guess the power feels a bit … too much. While drivers are wrong to illegally park in these spaces, in the end I’ve found it intimidating to issue a ticket that could potentially add up to more than my monthly rent. Instead, I’ve taken to leaving notes under windshield wipers and giving verbal warnings that alert drivers to the grim fate that could befall them should they continue their misdeeds.
Still, you never know. I may strike yet. Be aware, Houston.