Derelict and abandoned cars are certainly a recurring eyesore and danger for communities, with complaints that sanitation and police don’t do enough to help. The Amsterdam News dove into the towing data across the boroughs to see how they have been impacted by this chronic issue.
“You’re not going to find derelict vehicles in midtown Manhattan,” said one political insider.
The responsibility for towing technically falls under the Department of Sanitation (DSNY) and the New York City Police Department. The split means that there’s a bit of a determining process for what qualifies as a derelict, abandoned, or ghost car.
Recently, Mayor Eric Adams vowed to rid the city of “ghost cars” or those cars with paper license plates that are often connected to illegal activity. Ghost cars are usually parked illegally, which causes quality of life concerns in neighborhoods, said Chief Kim Royster in a presser. These cars hinder the flow of traffic, and block driveways, fire hydrants, and even handicapped ramps the same way derelict and abandoned cars do.
DSNY said that they often receive complaints or inquiries about vehicles outside of their jurisdiction because of the difference in distinction. Under state law, DSNY can only tow derelict vehicles, meaning a car having “no license plates and a value of less than $1,250” that’s been damaged or deteriorated in certain ways. The law also gives the vehicle owner an opportunity to claim the car before it is removed and recycled, said DSNY. It’s called the Derelict Vehicle Operation (DVO).
A car with a plate versus no plate also determines who picks up the car. If vehicles aren’t specifically derelict with no plates, they are tagged for removal by the NYPD. In the case of ghost cars, if someone is observed with a fake or counterfeit plate, then it’s a misdemeanor. If someone has a fake plate and is parked, said Royster, the city can tow that vehicle and administer fines. If local precincts think a car is stolen then it goes to the Rotational Tow Program.
A political insider, who used to work on a Brooklyn community board but declined to be identified by name, said that derelict vehicles used to be and are a “scourge on the city.” She said that rotational towing companies don’t always want to get vehicles because owners don’t come back for them and therefore the impound lot doesn’t get paid.
In the case of ghost cars, for example, Royster said that 25% of the 5,500 vehicles with paper plates towed by the NYPD’s Traffic Enforcement District last year were never retrieved by their owners. And that through June of this year, of the 1,646 vehicles that were towed with paper plates over 34% were not claimed.
Jeremy J. Blum, from the department of Computer Science and Mathematics at Pennsylvania State University, studied New York City’s sanitation and police data in his research on “Equity Issues Arising from Impound Lot Location and the Likelihood of Obstructing Vehicle Tows.”
In his findings, Blum said that he found towing hotspots that were near tow pounds that seemingly impacted densely minority populations in Manhattan and the Bronx. Blum looked at data on abandoned vehicles that didn’t meet the DSNY criteria for towing from 2003 to 2020 as well as NYPD numbers for cars removed that were obstructing traffic in 2020.
“The Bronx has the highest tow rates,” wrote Blum in his analysis. “Police Precinct 40, the southernmost precinct in the Bronx, had 1,409 obstructing vehicles towed in 2020. This was almost 7 times more than the average of 203, and more than twice the number in the next highest precinct. The second highest precinct, 44, had 701 vehicles towed. This precinct is in the southwest of the Bronx.”
Blum’s maps of towing rates for obstructing and derelict vehicles show that the hotspots for towing are clustered around the city tow pounds.
“Whatever the rationale, it is clear that vehicles in locations close to tow pounds are targeted for towing more often under the obstructed vehicle category. These locations are predominantly minority-majority areas,” wrote Blum.
He said that with the exception of precincts near the Manhattan Tow Pound, which closed up shop in 2020, and precinct 84 in Brooklyn, these high-tow precincts are majority non-white.
Brooklyn Councilmember Charles Barron in East New York said that community members often complain about parking and abandoned cars. Barron said towing and parking in the neighborhood is a historical complaint.
“We shouldn’t have to complain, they should see abandoned cars in our community and take care of that. It’s neglect,” said Barron. “I think it is like so many other things in our communities, they neglect things in Black and Brown communities until we say something.”
The political insider said that people often take the plates off to avoid getting tickets. Or, some people store old, junk cars around auto repair shops that they are fixing and reselling. She said it’s less so about Black or Brown neighborhoods and more so about the “outer boroughs” getting little attention because sanitation just doesn’t have the resources.
In response to the inequity claims, DSNY’s press office said that because vehicles that fit their criteria to tow are “disposed of” there would “likely be no relationship between the location of our DVOs and the locations of tow pounds.” There are likely separate and distinct differences in numbers because of the jurisdiction issue, said DSNY.
“Regarding geography, we respond to derelict vehicle complaints submitted via 311. We would push back strongly against any claims that some neighborhoods are favored over others, and the breakdowns by borough below should speak to that. You can also find extensive social media coverage of our DVOS here. We encourage anyone who sees a derelict vehicle to call 311 so that our team can respond to it,” said DSNY.
According to DSNY’s latest numbers in 2021, there were a total of 8,043 cars, vans and motorcycles tagged and 3,510 removed. The bulk of which were in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens. Staten Island had the fewest with 277 tagged and 119 removed. Manhattan had the second fewest with 325 tagged vehicles and 151 removed. Those numbers dropped significantly in 2022, with a total of 4,644 vehicles tagged citywide and 1,923 removed.
Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about culture and politics in New York City for The Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting: https://tinyurl.com/fcszwj8w