An abandoned car surrounded by illegally dumped garbage on 18th Ave at 12th Street. October 23, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos

They’re left blocking sidewalks, hazardously parked in the middle of roads, usually in various states of disrepair. Some are stolen, others just given up on by their owners. There are approximately 4,000 abandoned cars on Oakland streets right now that add to the city’s blight and roadway safety concerns. Starting this month, the city’s Transportation Department has taken over responsibility from the police to remove these cars.

Oakland’s new 16-person civilian Vehicle Enforcement Unit is now available to remove cars that have been abandoned for more than three days, that are defined as scofflaws, or that are part of encampments and seen as potentially dangerous. The shifting of abandoned vehicle enforcement is one outcome of the city’s Reimagining Public Safety Task Force, which suggested various ways to improve the city’s public safety system by saving money and reducing the reliance on police. 

The majority of the new team is made up of 13 technicians, maintenance workers who drive up and tag cars with a warning label before towing them days later, with additional support from one manager and two office staff. 

Most cars removed by the city are identified by residents who fill out a complaint in the city’s non-emergency Oak311 service.  

In a statement announcing the change, Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao said the new transportation department-led team is part of the city’s attempt to improve customer service.

 “We are reinforcing our work to keep neighborhoods clean from blighted, abandoned vehicles, and, in turn, we are directing more OPD public safety resources where they are most needed,” Thao said. 

Shifting responsibility for abandoned auto operations was approved in 2021 by the City Council. 

The Oakland Police Department’s decades of work handling the abandoned auto detail has been praised by some and criticized by others. Some residents said it would take months or even years for the OPD to remove derelict cars, leading trash to gather at a location. Some residents believed their cars were unfairly targeted for removal. 

The city’s announcement said the new program will speed up car removal for the “most-affected neighborhoods,” which are usually located in East and West Oakland.

Joe DeVries, Oakland’s Deputy City Administrator, previously told The Oaklandside that OakDOT staff worked with OPD to train on best practices when doing this work. When the new civilian-run Vehicle Enforcement Unit was first announced 11 months ago, OPD had only three officers assigned to deal with more than a thousand abandoned auto requests a month. 

According to the city, removing responsibility from the OPD will free up the department’s time to focus on violent crimes such as homicides.

According to city records, Oakland will spend $300,000 each fiscal year to run the new team, twice what was budgeted for OPD to carry out the work in prior years.

Thousands of cars have been left on Oakland roadways over the years without getting towed. This SUV, which suffered an explosion, stayed at this spot for days in the Dimond district in East Oakland last year. Source: Darwin BondGraham

Most residents who spoke to The Oaklandside about the shift said they’re supportive of it, but they also are skeptical it will lead to real changes on the ground, especially since abandoned cars are often attached to other complicated social issues such as homelessness and crime. 

Walter Wallace, a Black resident who lives near the Pill Hill district off Telegraph Avenue, said he is optimistic the new team will improve street conditions. “I want to give it a chance to see if there is improvement,” he said on Nextdoor. Wallace acknowledges some of the cars that are abandoned are used by unhoused people to sleep and would like the city to say what will happen to them. 

Alfredo Jimenez, a resident of the Havenscourt neighborhood in East Oakland said the new program “sounds good” but he will wait to see if major road blockages from these cars are quickly resolved. Jimenez noted that one RV near his home has been parked for several months at the corner of Avenal Street and 64th Avenue, narrowing the roadway and increasing the possibility of head-on collisions. “I’ve seen gas cans stored and used under the RV — this is a fire waiting to happen,” he said. 

Kevin Whittinghill, who lives in Dimond, said the new program makes sense if it frees up OPD resources. In the past, he said, cars that are removed quickly are those that stand out in major locations and thoroughfares. Whittinghill noticed that a few months ago, an abandoned truck at the entrance of the popular Dimond Park only stayed there for a week before it was removed while other cars in less visible streets have lasted much longer. 

Another resident, who asked not to be identified because of ongoing tensions in their neighborhood, said they were worried the new program could lead to abuse of the Oak311 system. The local professional, who is a person of color and lives in the Oakland hills, said their car was towed even though it was parked in front of their home. The car was old and, after a few days where the person was working strictly from home, the resident came out to find their car gone. 

They said there was no attempt by the people who submitted the report to try to find out whose car it was before asking for it to be towed. They also did not see a warning sticker from OPD before it was towed. The person was faced with paying hundreds of dollars to get the car back.

In order to know if the Vehicle Enforcement Unit is making progress in its stated goals, the city said it will track and publish data about towing numbers, the number of days it takes to close Oak311 tickets, and the “number of vehicle encampment assessments completed.” The city did not say how often it will publish this data. 

Jose Fermoso covers road safety, transportation, and public health for The Oaklandside. His previous work covering tech and culture has appeared in publications including The Guardian, The New York Times, and One Zero. Jose was born and raised in Oakland and 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.