Op-Ed: The True Costs of Towing: Unemployment, Racial Inequity, and Homelessness

The Towing Problem

Amid the pandemic, one-third of U.S. adults say they are having difficulty covering everyday costs such as food, rent, or car payments. Just 39 percent of Americans can afford a $1,000 unexpected expense. Having one’s car towed is often such an unforeseen cost and, for many people, goes beyond recovery fees and can lead to increased debt, loss of mobility for employment or essential life functions, or even being deprived of their home. These outcomes are particularly likely in communities of color.

Millions of cars in the United States are impounded each year for reasons not related to criminality or public safety. A 2019 report found that of the roughly one million vehicles towed by public agencies in California, more than 25 percent were executed because the owner had unpaid parking tickets, a vehicle registration had lapsed, or they were parked in the same spot for more than 72 hours. In San Francisco, 50 percent of cars towed for these three reasons are never recovered. On average, it costs just over $1,000 to retrieve a car after paying the tickets, potentially renewing the registration, and then paying the tow and impound fees.

Losing a car can have devastating effects, including loss of employment. Seventy-six percent of Americans commute to work by driving. In some cities, the gentrification of many historically low-income neighborhoods has forced low-income renters to move farther away from city centers where public transportation options are sparse, increasing their commute time and car dependence. Losing a car can take away an individual’s ability to work and access education, not only for themselves, but also for their families. For the growing number of individuals experiencing vehicular homelessness, a towed car can lead to loss of shelter, possessions, mobility, and likelihood of recovering financially.

The Towing Problem: Racial Inequity

Towing practices disproportionately impact communities of color. A 2018 investigation of over 26,000 tows found that the Oakland Police Department towed the most cars from East Oakland, a predominantly Black neighborhood. Racial bias in traffic stops can also lead to increased towing of minority-owned vehicles. In Chicago, the Vehicle Impound Program allows for the seizure of cars during traffic stops for any number of violations, which can only be retrieved after paying the fine issued during the stop. Since 2010, there have been nearly 250,000 vehicle seizures, or 22,000 a year, initiated by the Chicago police. Extensive reporting from WBEZ and ProPublica Illinois found that as a result of towing, about 1,600 people owed fines greater than $10,000 and more than 32,000 people owed fines greater than $5,000. The impound laws are disproportionately applied in minority neighborhoods and many quality-of-life offenses that resulted in towing, such as playing loud music or littering, were almost exclusively enforced in Black neighborhoods. From 2008-2018, there were 12,946 towing instances for a suspended/revoked license in Black-majority Ward 37, compared to just 130 in white-majority Ward 41. Loud music resulted in 553 tows in Black-majority Ward 9, more than the 546 tows in 13 white-majority wards combined.

The Towing Problem: Potential Solutions

At least 583 cities and towns collect 10 percent or more of their general fund revenue from fines, including towing. However, there are also monetary losses that occur because of towing. High fines and fees can lead people to not paying anything at all. Cities also lose money on tows when unpaid fines and fees are the reason for the tow, as those individuals are not likely to pay even more money than what they already owe.

Cities can generate revenue from citations and towing, while also turning to effective and equitable ways of rethinking compliance that will actually save them money. In 2020, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) implemented reforms to their towing policies, including a tow and boot fee waiver for people experiencing homelessness and discounts for low-income people. Integrated parking programs where drivers use a common permit or accessible mobile app for both private and public parking could also lead to greater compliance and potentially less chances of inequitable tows. While some bills have been introduced to repeal long-standing towing legislation, including California’s AB-516 (which sought to eliminate tows for unpaid parking tickets, expired car registration, or parking in a legal spot for more than 72 hours), most are never enacted.

In the meantime, several West Coast cities created programs to provide designated “safe parking” areas to prevent towing that forces individuals experiencing vehicular homelessness to live on the street. And there is evidence that these programs are effective—the Homelessness Policy Research Institute at the University of Southern California found that safe parking programs can lead to participants finding or being placed in housing. Small businesses are taking action too, like a used-car dealership in Charlotte that allows people to park in their lot overnight.

Issues with towing can also be addressed by investment in alternatives to driving. In light of changing travel behavior due to COVID-19 and mass teleworking, transit agencies should explore changes in service frequency since traditional peak service has been disrupted. Increasing transit service to suburban areas surrounding cities may help to decrease car dependence for low-income communities. Particularly for late-shift workers, who are disproportionately people of color, more service during off-peak hours could help to avoid overnight parking violations.

The issue of equitable towing policies and practices is under-addressed, under-researched, and misunderstood—and this inaction is being paid for by the poor. Tensions between the towing industry, policymakers, transportation professionals, and law enforcement agencies make change difficult. But for the majority of Americans who can’t afford that $1,000 towing price tag, we owe it to them to find better solutions.

The views expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Eno Center for Transportation.

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