Towing is Extortion

So, I got my car towed this morning.

I’ll rephrase. I got my rental car towed this morning, after parking overnight outside my apartment because there was no overnight drop-off.

I’ll clarify. I got my rental car towed this morning after parking six inches over the line, my Hyundai’s ass sticking into my neighbor’s driveway. In his defense, he had left me a very nice note on my windshield informing me my car would be towed if I didn’t move it.

I got a $100 parking ticket at 7:55am.
The city towed the car at 7:59am. The bill: $520.

Now, let me be clear. I screwed up. The tow zone was clearly marked. I took a risk butting the car into the driveway, and it was because I was lazy and tired and didn’t want to hunt for another space, and I thought I could get downstairs in the morning before anyone was leaving for work. I was wrong.

But let me ask you a question: isn’t $520 a ridiculously exorbitant fee to pay to get your own car back? Isn’t that an absurdly, unrealistically high amount of money to expect the average citizen in San Francisco to pay?

Now, I’m not poor, and I count my blessings that I have (had) the money to pay the $520 tow fee, plus the $100 parking ticket, plus the $20 cab ride to get to the car lot before the $56.50 daily fee kicked in.

But not everyone is so lucky. Most people can’t just conjure up $520 within the designated 4 hours of towing. I made a quick count of the “Auction List” of cars in the impound lot. 75 people in San Francisco were losing their cars today because, presumably, they couldn’t afford to pay to get them back.

The fact is, whether or not you live in San Francisco, you don’t even have to be remotely poor for $520 to be a lot of money. It’s a lot of money.

It doesn’t need to be this way, and it wouldn’t be if it weren’t for a carefully engineered, state-sponsored extortion racket.

As I discovered today, that $520 is neatly parceled between the city and the private monopoly contractor that does the towing. When you call the tower, they proudly tell you in their voice message that they are the “only” tow service for San Francisco. It’s their game. And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the circle jerk at play here.

The towers get paid by the tow. They’re out there looking. All the time. 24/7. Their job is to tow as much as possible, and charge exorbitant fees backed by the force of law. And San Francisco walks away with half the fees anyway, so it’s not like they have a reason to change the system. And the fact that the $520 towers showed up 4 minutes after the city gave me a $100 parking ticket–two punishments for the same crime–only makes me more sure that there is a close cooperation happening here.

Public meets private: the worst of both worlds.

Law enforcement being mobilized to clear cars parked in the bad places is important, and of course people should be responsible for their property, and should pay the cost of towing their car. But if we are going to make towing the purview of municipal government, then the government has to actually step in and clear the roads, and those should be the only costs that people pay. If the city contracts out to a private monopoly, it is doing nothing more than creating a giant corporate subsidy. People must pay double or triple what they would have paid otherwise, and although most of the fee goes to a private corporation, it still is backed by the force of law.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love private enterprise. And we should privatize just about everything we can, especially services that could be provided competitively like transit. But towing is not a service, it is a form of law enforcement, which puts the incentives in the wrong place. It pays people to find–or create–lawbreakers. And what we have here is nothing more than state-sponsored extortion: making someone pay you for a “service” that you didn’t ask them to provide, on threat of losing your property. Extortion is extortion, and it doesn’t matter if it’s the mafia or the City of San Francisco.

But at least the mafia would provide some protection.

 
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