Vancouver’s abandoned vehicle problem

From clunkers and junkers to moderately expensive vehicles, the City of Vancouver annually tickets more than a thousand cars on its streets that it considers abandoned and that are clogging up residential and business street parking spots.

Many are stolen vehicles dumped by thieves and joyriders, reported to the city only after hapless homeowners tire of having their parking space eaten up by a car they don’t recognize. Others are vehicles inconveniently parked by owners who have gone away on extended vacations.

But there are also a lot of owners who don’t want to pay the cost of disposing of their old wreck and simply walk away.

It adds up to an expensive problem for the city, which spends nearly half a million dollars a year removing, storing, and in many cases scrapping vehicles no one wants any more, according to Jerry Dobrovolny, the city’s director of transportation.

“Many of them are stolen. Some belong to people who move out of province. Many are of low value, and people expect us to deal with them all,” Dobrovolny said. “When someone complains about a strange vehicle parked in front of their house, we have to come and look at it.”

The city tags or tickets suspected abandoned autos, then waits about 48 hours. About half of all tagged cars are moved by their owners, but the rest are towed away by Busters, which then has to check whether they’re stolen, and send double-registered letters to owners telling them where they can pick up their property.

Dealing with the automotive detritus of peoples’ lives has become such a big problem for the city that 10 years ago it created a special one-hectare “abandoned vehicle yard” at its Kent Street facilities at a cost of nearly $2.3 million.

For all that effort, the city only recoups about half of the program’s annual costs from storage and towing fees, sale of scrapped cars, and vehicles auctioned to the highest bidder.

As a result, the city on average spends $39,000 a month administering its abandoned vehicle program according to a document obtained by The Vancouver Sun under Freedom of Information laws.

Every month in 2011, on average, Busters Towing drivers hauled in 47 vehicles, half the number actually ticketed by a parking enforcement officer as a result of public complaints. That’s because by the time the tow truck driver got to the location, the offending vehicle was either gone or properly licensed to be on the street.

Of those impounded, on average 18 owners a month came to the abandoned vehicle yard to retrieve their property. Far more vehicles — 28 per month — were not claimed and the city had to send them for scrap, for which the city received an average of $187 each. Each month, only three cars on average were in good enough condition that they could be auctioned off, where they might bring in a better value. The city says vehicles sent to auction should have an appraised value of more than $500.

Over the course of the year the city sold 36 vehicles at auction for a total of $71,498. It received $63,400 for 339 scrapped vehicles. It also collected $110,443 from owners who reclaimed their vehicles, in the form of daily storage fees, towing fees and bylaw ticket revenues.

But that $245,331 was quickly eaten up by the $499,210 the city spent operating the yard last year.

Of those expenses, the largest share, $228,000, went to pay for the amortized cost of creating the abandoned vehicle lot. The city also spent $109,872, for the salaries and expenses of two city employees. It also paid Busters $151,574 for administering the program and towing services. Under its five-year contract with the city, Busters is entitled to both an administrative fee and a flat rate set by ICBC for towing.

The city also incurred nearly $10,000 in other costs, including renting an office trailer, ICBC services, maintenance and key-cutting.

Dobrovolny said the program is a necessary part of keeping the city’s streets clear of derelict vehicles and that Vancouver makes its best efforts to recover every cost it can.

The busiest month for tickets in 2011 — with 121 — was October, historically the month vehicle insurance ran out until ICBC began issuing policies that could run out at any time. That same month, 36 vehicles were towed away.

But July and August of 2011 ran a close second, with 116 and 110 tickets issued and 36 and 49 vehicles towed.

Dobrovolny said he can’t explain why some owners of more expensive vehicles are unwilling to retrieve them and instead let them go to auction.

Research by Marc Ellison

Busters Towing’s Bhupinder Singh hooks up an abandoned car at East Broadway and Windsor in Vancouver, B.C., April 5, 2012.
Photograph by: Arlen Redekop, Vancouver Sun