THOMAS NIXON, A project engineer for Infinite Networks Inc., has had an abandoned Volkswagen Jetta outside of his San Jose apartment complex since he moved in eight months ago. 

The car has four flat tires, its hood was popped open for six days — and, ironically enough, Nixon lives right next to the Department of Motor Vehicles.

The VW is one of many abandoned vehicles scattered throughout San Jose, and the San Jose Department of Transportation is ramping up its Vehicle Abatement Program in an effort to clean up the streets.

“It’s definitely a local government issue,” said Nixon, 32. “It presents a problem for space, for parking, for people that have functional cars. It takes work from the government to keep the streets clean.”

“The number of cars we’re towing is comparable to what we were doing pre-pandemic, but the number of requests have gone down. We’re now towing a much greater proportion of the requests received.”

Colin Heyne, San Jose Department of Transportation

Abandoned vehicles are clearly harmful to communities across San Jose, promoting crime and attracting rodents. They can create potential fire hazards and depreciate the value of neighborhoods, but perhaps worst of all for many residents, they take up parking spaces that can be hard to come by.

San Jose’s Vehicle Abatement Program was initially designed to retrieve abandoned cars through a request-based system, but the program has changed drastically since the COVID-19 pandemic. The city has switched to a Hybrid Vehicle Abatement Program that is meant to make getting abandoned vehicles off the street more efficient.

Historically, residents could call 311 or the Department of Transportation to make service requests to remove abandoned vehicles. This proved ineffective as many of the requests were unsubstantiated, according to Colin Heyne, public information manager for the Department of Transportation.

“We would come out and then have to verify, which would add three days to the process,” said Heyne. “We would come back in three days to see if it had moved, then we’d put a big orange sticker that says you’re in violation if it hadn’t. Then we would come again a week later. That process was very long, and it favored people who had the time, initiative, and language skills to make these requests.”

Many reported, few towed

According to a Vehicle Abatement Program memorandum from March 7, 2022, there were 60,000 requests made every year and only 7-8 percent resulted in a vehicle getting towed. Between 20,000 and 25,000 requests per year were deemed unnecessary — in many instances, the vehicle was gone, or was never there in the first place.

The new hybrid model is meant to limit dependence on the request-based system and rely more on data. The program used to be more reactive, but this new proactive approach has reduced unnecessary trips made by the Department of Transportation.

One of the main changes to the model is that there are citywide proactive patrols, in which parking and traffic control officers, or PTCOs, drive through the city and identify abandoned vehicles not previously reported by residents. The vehicles must fit a specific criterion in order to be towed.

A screenshot of the San Jose 311 mobile app displays a log of user requests for abatement services of nuisances such as abandoned vehicles and graffiti. (Image via Google Play)

Vehicles that qualify may be missing wheels, windows, drivers’ seats, engines, or have enough other damage to be rendered immobile. Vehicles may also be on blocks, have open doors, have flat tires, or be covered in graffiti. These are cars that are very clearly abandoned and could attract illicit activities or infestation.

Starting on September 21, 2021, all abandoned vehicle requests to 311 require that photos be submitted, in order to validate the request. According to Heyne, this has reduced the number of unproductive field visits by 85-90 percent.

“The number of cars we’re towing is comparable to what we were doing pre-pandemic, but the number of requests have gone down,” said Heyne. “We’re now towing a much greater proportion of the requests received.”

In 2020-21, proactive patrols were able to remove 1,145 unreported vehicles across the city. By the end of February 2022, proactive patrols were estimated to have removed over 1,700 unreported vehicles, according to the Vehicle Abatement Program memorandum.

By deploying PTCOs, the city is getting abandoned vehicles off the street that were not previously reported and establishing a more equitable system. The proactive patrols are most impactful in low-income communities and minority communities where reporting had been rare. Language barriers, lack of resources, and feelings of being disconnected from government may limit people from neighborhoods such as East San Jose and Alum Rock from making service requests.

“I think it has a lot to do with people struggling to find success in the area,” said Nixon. “People fall on hard times, and they can’t afford to maintain their cars. And that’s definitely more common in lower income neighborhoods.”

Making an impact

The new hybrid program has proved to be very effective in Council Districts 3, 5, and 7, which stretch from Downtown San Jose to the northeast side of the city. Without proactive patrols, a lot of these vehicles would have gone under the radar and further contributed to the blight in these communities. The city of San Jose has created a program that can help all parts of the city instead of depending solely on requests from residents. 

Twenty-nine-year-old Aaron Anderson recently moved to East San Jose, and he has noticed an increase in the number of abandoned vehicles he is seeing daily. As it is a predominantly Hispanic area, residents may be less inclined to contact the government about abandoned vehicles on the street. 

“I feel like it impacts the overall look of the area,” Anderson said. “If you’re coming to move into the neighborhood, you may not want to move into an area with a bunch of abandoned cars. We do have to park on the street, so it’s annoying when there’s been a car sitting there for months and months.”

But PTCOs have been most effective in East San Jose, removing more than 100 vehicles between March 2021 and September 2021 according to the Vehicle Abatement Program memorandum. All of these vehicles were unreported and would have remained undetected if the PTCOs did not identify them. 

Anderson grew up in a gated community on San Jose’s southeast side, and he said police were more active in that area. This in turn created a more well-kept community. Proactive patrols are attempting to have the same effect on low-income communities across San Jose. 

“The quality has just gone up after switching to the new model,” said Heyne. “Now, we’re providing services where they are most needed.”