Rich Lazer Would Like You to Love the PPA. No, Seriously.
For decades, the Philadelphia Parking Authority has been beset by scandal and the most pitiful of public perceptions. The agency's new director has other ideas.
The sidewalk on the 1800 block of Fishtown’s Blair Street was just like that alongside many Philly streets, and by that, we mean it was constantly and hopelessly covered in vehicles. Ford Expeditions and maintenance vans and tiny little beat-up Acura sedans all lined up, every day, on the seven-ish feet of concrete that separated the street from the Shissler Recreation Center playground.
Back in 2018, the Fishtown Neighbors Association spent $300 on 10 flexible bollards for that stretch of sidewalk, hoping they’d serve as a deterrent to the sidewalk scourge. They worked, until they didn’t. As bollard after bollard was crushed, the parkers returned. Then, this past spring, neighbors began a social media blitz, posting photo after photo of the violating vehicles on Twitter. Soon, an unlikely voice chimed in.
Is this a common occurrence at this location? the Philadelphia Parking Authority’s Twitter account responded on June 26th.
Within a month, news stories had appeared, PPA enforcement officers were stopping by daily to write tickets, and plans were working their way to City Council for making the sidewalks outside city buildings tow zones. We’re Philadelphians, so our history, a set of eyes and half a brain make us want to take this anecdote and scoff — to dismiss it as a one-off. New PPA executive director Rich Lazer, though, hopes we’ll all reconsider that.
“When people in neighborhoods see that you’re doing those types of things, I think that helps,” says Lazer, who took over the agency in December. “That’s been a big thing for me. When you call here, when you tweet, I want to make sure that we’re receptive and responsive. … If you can do some of that, you build that confidence, you build your workforce up with their morale, and you’re also building that you’re the agency that can help get things done in the city. And then you start to build on it.”
When he first told me, I was like, ‘Oh, are you sure? This is a potential cesspool you’re walking into.’ And he was absolutely sure.” — Mayor Jim Kenney
Before you continue reading this story, open a browser tab and type in the phrase “Fuck the PPA.” It’s astounding, right? T-shirts, Instagram accounts, subreddits, keychains, a song by the South Philly band Snacktime, all dedicated to loudly flipping the bird to our city’s parking enforcement agency. It’s not an uncommon sentiment, and thanks to 103 episodes of the cable television program Parking Wars, it’s a sentiment that has breached our municipal barriers. So when Lazer, 38, told his boss, Mayor Jim Kenney, that he was thinking of applying for the authority’s open executive director role last fall, Kenney was flummoxed.
“When he first told me, I was like, ‘Oh, are you sure? This is a potential cesspool you’re walking into,’” Kenney says. “And he was absolutely sure.”
You can understand Kenney’s skepticism. For decades, the PPA has been mired in a stew of corruption and patronage. It’s hard to imagine an agency in Philadelphia with a worse public image. The previous two executive directors were felled by rampant sexual harassment and financial mismanagement, respectively. Recent state and city audits have only dragged that perception down further. Lazer was undeterred.
“I was fascinated by the PPA,” he says. “I was excited, because I knew there’s really good people that work here that have great institutional knowledge and care and want to do well.”
Spend any time with Lazer, and you realize it all starts with that word: people. One day in late July, PPA deputy executive director Gabe Roberts and I are driving around the city with him, ostensibly so I can learn about the many (many) facets of Philadelphia that the PPA rules. (The list is astonishing and, according to Lazer and Roberts, makes the authority the belle of the ball at industry conferences: curb management, residential parking permits, red-light and speed cameras, parking garages, airport parking, auto auctions, freaking taxicab and limousine inspections. “Locally, much maligned” but “the golden child” nationally, Roberts says. In 2020, the authority was named the parking organization of the year by the International Parking and Mobility Institute, an industry trade group, and it’s one of the few organizations in the country that earn IPMI’s accreditation “with distinction.”) But instead of taking me to watch a tow or ogle a parking garage, Lazer takes me past his grandmother’s house.
Like most Pennsport houses, it’s modest, squeezed between the Quaker City String Band and the Second Street Irish Society, across from Furness High School and down the block from two other Mummers clubs. Lazer lived there until he was five, when the family moved to the 100 block of Wolf Street (three blocks south, two blocks east). When he got married, he moved down to Ritner Street (one block south), and now he lives with his wife, son, and daughter on Moyamensing Avenue (three blocks west, four blocks north). He’s spent his whole life — other than a four-year college sojourn all the way up at … La Salle — in Pennsport and Whitman.
“He knows what it feels like if people reach out and they feel like nobody’s paying attention to your concerns,” says City Councilman Mark Squilla, who has known Lazer since the latter’s middle-school days shooting hoops at Burke Playground. “I think that’s a key quality, and understanding that every issue — even though it may sound minute to you or somebody on your staff — if they reached out to you, it’s really imperative for you to do something and try to resolve it.”
Roberts is more blunt.
“Rich grew up in a neighborhood where if you have a problem, you’re knocking on your City Councilperson’s door, or you’re finding your state Rep at the local watering hole or New Year’s club,” he says. “I always used to theorize that a lot of his approach to whatever he does stems from the fact that at any moment, at any time, somebody could knock on his door and there’s no escaping it. And that breeds that sort of pride in civic responsibility, whether you like it or not.”
This young man was truly interested in helping people and making situations better.” — Mayor Jim Kenney on Rich Lazer
That civic responsibility started for Lazer at 2nd and Jackson’s Burke Playground. He loved coaching basketball — he’d hit a growth spurt early, but once every other kid caught up, he knew his playing days were waning. In high school, he’d teach the X’s and O’s to kids at Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Burke, the EOM Athletic Association at Front and Moore, watching the way these kids — tall, short, fast, slow, different skill sets — brought those abilities and attributes together.
It was at Burke that he met Squilla, who at the time led the Friends of Burke Playground group that launched the reinvigoration of the playground and rec center. In seventh grade, Lazer started volunteering at the rec center, coaching and cleaning up, small things. And he watched Squilla, learning how to navigate the neighborhood politics and, more importantly, how to listen to those neighbors.
Despite Squilla’s early impact, Kenney is without a doubt the biggest professional influence in Lazer’s life. The two came up in the same New Year’s club — they’re both Jokers, just like Lazer’s dad, Rich Sr. — and Kenney gave Lazer his first college internship. There at Kenney’s side was where Lazer stood for the next 17 years — save for a short Congressional run in 2018; he came in third in the Democratic primary behind Ashley Lunkenheimer and Mary Gay Scanlon — rising from a constituent-services rep in Kenney’s City Council office to negotiating contract disputes and juggling the flaming pins of the city’s diverse, often combative workforce as his deputy mayor for labor.
“This young man was truly interested in helping people and making situations better,” Kenney says. “The biggest part of his personality is that he really knows how to treat people. That was why he was so successful as deputy mayor for labor — because he understood how to treat people. It wasn’t derogatory. It wasn’t condescending. It wasn’t ordering people around. And if you talk to [former AFSCME District Council 33 union head] Pete Matthews, or you talk to John McNesby or fire department leadership or white-collar municipal workers, they’ll all say the same thing.”
Whether that approach could translate to the PPA was another story.
When Lazer arrived at the authority last December, he looked around and realized one incongruous thing: Despite the size of the authority and its reach, it was actually being underutilized. So he set about changing that.
Right now, you can probably envision an abandoned car or truck on your block or in your neighborhood. Maybe its tires sag or its windshield is smashed. Waterlogged tickets shoved under the windshield wiper, expired registration. Maybe it’s even a tractor-trailer, blocking five parking spots. Lazer talks a lot about “silos.” As deputy mayor, it was his job to break down those silos, bring everyone to the table, and get a deal done. Take those orphaned autos, for instance.
When you report an abandoned vehicle to 311, the report goes to the Philadelphia police department. But, Lazer says, because of low deployment numbers and resources that are allocated to what the department has deemed more pressing matters (and there are many in the city), towing abandoned cars and other quality-of-life issues have fallen by the wayside.
“We have tow trucks, we have staff, our people are in a lot of these neighborhoods anyway, so like, why can’t we work with PPD?” he thought to himself.
Soon, the police department was funneling all those requests — hundreds, thousands of requests across the city — straight to the PPA. Anything that fell under Lazer’s jurisdiction — if the vehicle was deemed too dangerous to drive or had no registration or license plate or a purposefully obscured plate, etc. — his crews would send a truck. In the last week of July, at the corner of Grays Ferry Avenue and 48th Street, neighbors reported a sedan and a massive sky-blue flatbed tow truck that inexplicably found itself abandoned in West Philly despite being emblazoned with a Broward County, Florida, phone number and address.
As the two vehicles were towed away, freeing up parking space for at least four cars, supervisor Rob Castor pulled up the request on his phone: They were the 2,360th and 2,361st abandoned vehicles the PPA had towed since late February.
“You’re raising the quality of life in the neighborhoods, and you’re giving people spaces, you’re making it nicer in general,” Castor says. “I mean, I’ve been with the Parking Authority for 17 years, and this is … I’ve never gotten so much praise from the citizens.”
(The reception hasn’t been totally rosy. In August, someone in Center City shot a PPA tow-truck driver in the face with a BB gun. And the thousands of residents ticketed this spring for street-sweeping violations likely aren’t shaking PPA officers’ hands, either.)
After tackling the abandoned-autos issue — reports have slowed to just about a dozen a day thanks to the removals — Lazer expanded his vision. How do we work with the Center City District to help traffic flow? How do we get cars out of the bike lanes? Maybe we pitch in and tow some of the RVs in Kensington that are used for nefarious purposes. And, most importantly, how do we improve citizens’ relationships with the rest of the city agencies — relationships that had been ground into dust and swept away by previous administrations?
“At the end of the day, we don’t want to be looked at as somebody who just wants to generate revenue, because that’s not the mission. Our operation is not out to just crush people.” — Rich Lazer
Lazer recognizes that increased enforcement isn’t viewed positively across much of the city. He doesn’t look at enforcement as a revenue generator — a claim you can hear muttered at expired meters across Philadelphia — but rather as a behavioral change. If you’re blocking a crosswalk or parking on a sidewalk or jamming up a bike lane, yes, you’ll have to pay a fine. And maybe next time, you won’t do it (or at least will think twice about doing it).
“It’s about curb management and enforcing quality-of-life issues so they don’t happen anymore,” Lazer says. “And maybe that’s putting yourself out of business, because you want people to follow the rules. But at the end of the day, we don’t want to be looked at as somebody who just wants to generate revenue, because that’s not the mission. Our operation is not out to just crush people.”
To that end, Lazer is exploring ways to revamp the PPA’s payment-plan option, so tickets don’t lead to more tickets, which lead to boots, which lead to tows, and so on.
“People have been starving for attention to quality-of-life issues,” Councilmember Squilla says. “And now the Parking Authority is the first one to step up and really take ownership on it.”
“Richie has come in there and has thought through the things that are really bothering him and his neighbors,” says Dena Driscoll, co-chair for the urbanist PAC 5th Square, which advocates for transportation, land use and public-space policy changes. “I think it’s interesting that this is really the first person we’ve had in a long time at the PPA who lives in Philadelphia and who’s encountering the same quality-of-life issues that many of us are. They’re really low-level issues that someone could have taken care of a long time ago.”
In another example of Lazer’s ability to reach across the table, after he took over the agency in December, he reached out to Driscoll and other 5th Square volunteers: How can the PPA tackle the quality-of-life issues? What can we do? Do you have any suggestions? The ask was, according to Driscoll, out of the box.
“You know, [former PPA executive director] Scott Petri was not calling me up saying, ‘What do you think about removing more abandoned cars on the street?’ or ‘What do you think about daylighting on blocks?’ It’s very much a change of pace.”
In conversation after conversation with Lazer, he emphasizes one phrase more than any other: a professional agency. That’s what he wants the PPA — all 1,000-plus employees — to be known as, both internally and externally. He wants to shed the authority’s reputation as a GOP patronage mill, a place where little more than a relationship and a handshake can lead to a six-figure job with a pension. He wants his agency to be efficient and data-driven, to spread its influence across the city, and, most importantly, to make the city a better place.
Tractor-trailers parking on city streets? Maybe he takes a little bit of PPA-owned land and turns it into a secure, well-lit lot where drivers feel safe leaving their vehicles for the night. Cars parking on the grass at FDR Park? Let’s figure out how to expand legitimate parking so kids can use those fields.
Lazer’s office overlooks the corner of 7th and Market streets, where, in the wake of the abrupt closure of the city’s Greyhound bus station, hundreds of bus riders stand every day in the heat and rain, waiting to catch a coach to New York or Baltimore or Indianapolis. Does the PPA have anything to do with that decision? Absolutely not. Does Lazer think he might have a solution? He does.
People are pissed, right? But at least try to make it seamless.” — Rich Lazer
As we get ready to say goodbye, he takes me to one last stop. We’ve spent the morning driving around the city, meeting Jim at taxi and limo enforcement, Jermaine, Chris and Rob at 48th and Grays Ferry, Corinne in on-street operations, Judy in red-light enforcement, Lance in dispatch, Anthony in enforcement, all greeted by first name, treated as people first and employees second. He takes me downstairs, to a stretch of 8th Street right behind PPA headquarters. It’s covered by a PPA-owned parking garage, and before COVID, it housed a few shops and various PPA offices: red-light cameras, customer service, payment processing.
Currently, if there’s a line, it snakes out onto the sidewalk. Lazer’s vision is to turn this spot into one public-facing office — sort of a PennDOT, but for the PPA. Give folks more seating, streamline the operation. So — break down the silos. Make it a professional agency.
“People are pissed, right? But at least try to make it seamless.”
As we stand there, I’m reminded of a story Lazer told me the day before. Years ago, when he was a constituent-services rep in Kenney’s City Council office, he got a call in the middle of a snowstorm. His desk sat in the middle of a big room, with a bunch of other staffers piled around. On the phone was a woman whose street hadn’t been plowed. Just as Lazer started offering the caller the number to the Streets Department, Kenney stepped in.
“He goes, ‘We don’t give out phone numbers,’” Lazer recalls. “I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And he’s like, ‘We do it. We’re representing folks; when they call us with issues, we don’t just give them a phone number. We go and do it for them, because they’re calling us for a service.’ And that’s stuck with me.”
Published as “Could Philly Ever Love The PPA?” in the October 2023 issue of Philadelphia magazine.