San Francisco drivers to get text alert before being towed

In a first for a major metro, it’s about clearing the streets and giving drivers a break

San Franciscans might soon want to pay closer attention to text messages from unknown numbers. Starting this week, some pesky notification could be alerting them that their vehicle is about to be towed.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency has launched an initiative that will send a text message to customers whose vehicles are about to be towed for one of four parking violations: parked for more than 72 hours; blocking driveways; construction zones; and temporary no-parking zones, such as special events or moving trucks.

Together, these categories accounted for 12,500 vehicle tows in 2020, or 27% of cars towed.

Ordinarily, a first-time full-priced tow costs a staggering $500 to retrieve the vehicle, though there are a slew of discount programs for eligible individuals. Recovering the car also requires the owner to pay any outstanding ticket debt.

“It struck a chord in me because it’s a basic quality-of-life issue,” said SFMTA Board Director Manny Yekutiel, who spearheaded this initiative. “It’s a very expensive city to live in, and it’s a tough city in many ways, so what’s a way we can make things a little easier in our town?”

The idea for a text-before-tow program came from a chance encounter with a generous neighbor.

As Yekutiel tells the story, when the battery on his Vespa scooter had died in Bernal Heights, a guy stuck his head out the window, offered to drop jumper cables and invited Yekutiel upstairs for a beer. They got to talking, and the neighbor told Yekutiel about an idea he once had for a text-before-tow program.

It seems so simple, yet San Francisco will be the first major city in the country with this kind of service.

SFMTA’s goal is not to make life easier on drivers at the expense of transit. Director Jeffrey Tumlin has been clear that towing is a necessary tool to ensure pedestrian safety and the proper flow of Muni service as well as to deter bad behavior from car owners.

Vehicles will still be towed without prior text warning if they’re parked in peak-hour tow-away lanes, transit-only lanes and other curb areas where parking is clearly prohibited, for example.

But the four types of violations selected by the transit agency for this program represent those that are more likely to be the result of a harmless mistake, forgetfulness or misunderstanding of ever-changing street signs around temporary events.

“It is very much within the realm of reason that you accidentally parked here,” said Yekutiel, who mentioned he had been towed many times. “It makes sense to start in these categories to give people a little more grace.”

SFMTA is hopeful these alerts will shift at least some of the burden of clearing streets from the transit agency to the motorists themselves.

“We hate having to tow cars to keep transit moving smoothly,” Tumlin said in a statement. “We can clear the streets more quickly and better serve our customers by simply sending a text so motorists can move their cars.”

SFMTA’s towing policy has come under scrutiny during the pandemic for the disproportionate impact it has on people of color, individuals living in their cars and low-income earners.

Though The City has endeavored to provide discounts and increased notice periods for eligible individuals, this program might give some of the most vulnerable residents one more opportunity to avoid the costly and often catastrophic experience of having their vehicle towed.

To receive a text message, residents must complete a short online form to register their license plates and phone number. Notifications will alert the person a tow truck is approaching, but will not include an estimated time of arrival. Should the vehicle’s owner arrive before the tow truck does, fees associated with potential towing will be foregone but parking citation fees will still apply.

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