An abandoned car flagged for removal. Credit: Amir Aziz

One of Oakland residents’ biggest road complaints is the prevalence of abandoned cars. All over the city, from freeway offramps to major streets and residential roads, nearly everyone can identify a car they know has been left crumbling in place.

Marcella Cortez, a resident of the Laurel District, told The Oaklandside through our roadway conditions survey that abandoned cars contribute to poor street and sidewalk conditions. North Oakland resident Danielle Blumen said she had to call 311 a few years ago to pick up an old Honda sedan outside her small apartment complex after it had sat for more than six months. It had taken up a prime parking spot, and she feared it would lead to more cars getting dumped there.

“It made me concerned. The mentality of ‘Oh, this is a good spot to leave an abandoned car, so that I can do it too,’” she said. “Besides, I think abandoned cars are a watershed for general blight. Since it is technically trash, other things can start to pile up.”

Just a month ago, several stolen cars, stripped of parts, were dumped in the middle of Alameda Avenue, near the 24 Hour Fitness and the I-880 on-ramp. The useless hulks of metal and plastic sat there for days causing traffic jams. Local businesses called repeatedly for their removal.

For decades, finding and towing abandoned cars has been the responsibility of the Oakland Police Department, but the job is now shifting to the Department of Transportation, or OakDOT.

Oakland’s Director of Interdepartmental Operations, Joe DeVries, confirmed to The Oaklandside that OakDOT will take over the abandoned auto responsibilities in the next six months.

“The goal is to onboard staff in the summer and have them partner with OPD staff doing the work currently, to get the best training from those with the most experience doing the work,” said DeVries.

The Oakland Department of Transportation is reorganizing by breaking its parking division into five units: parking enforcement, parking citation assistance center, meter collection, parking abatement, and mobility management. The changes were first described in the city’s 2021-23 fiscal year budget.

“If you ask residents or neighborhood service coordinators what the number one concern is, they’ll say violent crime [such as homicides]. And then they’ll say the second biggest is abandoned autos,” OakDOT’s parking director Michael Ford told the city’s Bicyclist and Pedestrian Advisory Commission last month. 

Ford said that OakDOT is currently working on ensuring that its mobility unit has enough personnel to be able to process the massive number of abandoned car notices that come in every month. Currently, there are only three police officers assigned to respond to more than 1,300 abandoned car requests a month. OakDOT has not said how many staffers it will use when it takes over enforcement.

How does abandoned car abatement work?

  • Currently, anyone can submit a request to the city through its OAK 311 app or through SeeClickFix when they see an abandoned car they think needs removal.
  • The city might place a warning sticker on the car windshield to let its owner know they will come back in 72 hours and check if the car has moved through an odometer or tire marker check.
  • Next, city staff will investigate and may remove the car if there is an expired registration, if it has five or more unpaid parking tickets, or if obvious parts are missing.

Similar to how OakDOT handles resident submissions of potholes through 311, OakDOT plans on having its staff decide when and where crews will be deployed to pick up abandoned cars.

The decision to have OakDOT take over abandoned auto enforcement from OPD was prompted by the Reimagining Public Safety Task Force, which recommended civilianizing things that don’t require a badge and gun, and the work of another joint task force looking into abandoned autos that has been meeting every week since August 2021.

The latter group, which includes OPD and the Economic and Workforce Development Department, described in an October memo a pilot program on the path of civilianizing abandoned auto recovery. Under the program, OakDOT technicians will receive a list of abandoned cars and check on them first to make sure they’re still in the same location and need to be picked up. This allows OPD enforcement and tow truck workers to avoid wasting time because, according to the city, 52% of the time when personnel are dispatched to an abandoned car location, “the vehicle is already gone.” DeVries told The Oaklandside that this has helped cut the time it takes to remove an abandoned car by roughly 60% in the pilot area.

Getting a handle on the abandoned car situation might take a while

A dilapidated vehicle in West Oakland is one of 5,000 open requests by residents seeking removal of an abandoned car. Credit: Amir Aziz

At the moment, the city has more than 5,000 open requests for abandoned cars, though some are duplicates sent by multiple residents. 

Jules Simone, who lives off Piedmont Avenue, called in an abandoned car near her home four years ago and the city took it away in less than ten days. More recently though, she said city staff told her there’s a 200-day backlog of abandoned car work.

To try to ease this workflow problem, OakDOT’s Ford announced at a recent bike and pedestrian commission meeting that the department is working on creating a “one-stop-shop” for all parking- and mobility-related matters at 270 Frank H. Ogawa Plaza. Currently, that’s the location of the city’s parking meter collection unit and parking citation assistance center. In the future, any resident will be able to go and talk in person to an OakDOT staffer about their issue, including paying parking tickets, or to check in on a request to remove a car from their street. 

Ford also said that the city is prepared to increase parking fines. In May, OakDOT will present a report to City Council about how Oakland citations match up to those of similar cities. Ford said that one common issue is cars blocking bike lanes. The current penalty for this is $48 for each violation compared to $162 in San Francisco. 

“We will definitely be asking the council to raise the fine on bike lane violations,” he said. Parking violations are currently the same in both cities, at $110.

Will OakDOT make abandoned car abatement fairer?

Homeless Oakland residents have complained for years that their cars, often the places they sleep, have been wrongfully towed after housed residents and businesses asked for OPD to remove them. Residents in East and West Oakland’s flatlands have also suspected that the city prioritizes car removals in the wealthier, less diverse sections of the city. 

Oakland’s dangerous roadways

This article is part of our special series looking into traffic and pedestrian safety in the city. Read more.

Ford told the Bicyclist and Pedestrian Advisory Commission at a recent meeting that based on data he’s seen, the opposite is true: the city responds faster to abandoned cars in the flatlands. The reason, according to Ford, is that abandoned auto complaints coming from East and West Oakland are 30% more likely to refer to an actual abandoned car needing removal compared to complaints from North Oakland. As a result, the city knows to remove cars in East and West Oakland first, he said. 

“[In] North Oakland, people are probably just complaining about their neighbor, who hasn’t moved their car in a week. That’s an example where I think it’s really important for us to look at our data, see the story that it’s telling, and ask how our resources are being distributed.”

In an October report about abandoned autos, City Administrator Ed Reiskin highlighted the neighborhoods disparity.

“Property owners feel they are entitled to park in front of their home and therefore become increasingly frustrated when someone else’s car remains there for extended periods of time,” he wrote. While the current California law prohibits storing a car for more than 72 hours, Reisken noted it also does not give homeowners the right to park in front of their home or prohibit others from doing so. 

Some Oakland residents have also pointed out that improved parking enforcement isn’t fair if city workers are frequently violating parking laws themselves. Police and fire vehicles, and even parking technicians who issue tickets, have been spotted parked in “compromising or dangerous situations” including in bike lanes.

“Let’s make sure that our parking control technicians are parking safely. that they’re not blocking the sidewalk,” Ford said during a recent bike and pedestrian commission meeting. “I admit I have not made as much progress as I’d like to on this point.” 

For many Oakland residents, they just want to have a system that works better for everyone. 

Blumen said in an interview she doesn’t want to be a jerk to have someone’s car towed if it isn’t clear that it needs to go. 

“I think it’s good to have neighbors and a good community who ask around and say, “Hey, is this your car? It’s been here a long time.”

Jose Fermoso is a 2021 Knight-Wallace Fellow reporting on traffic and road safety for The Oaklandside. His work covering tech and culture has appeared in publications including The Guardian, The New York Times, and One Zero. Born and raised in Oakland, Jose has also worked on the bestselling unauthorized biography of Apple's Jony Ive and led all content initiatives at App Academy, the top U.S. coding boot camp. He is the host and creator of the El Progreso podcast, a new show featuring in-depth narrative stories and interviews about and from the perspective of the Latinx community.