Daniel Lampie faced a mundane yet tricky problem: He was going out of town for a couple weeks, so what should he do with his car? Like many San Francisco drivers who like to take the occasional vacation but who don’t have a garage, Lampie looked uphill.
“I’m in the Mission,” he told The Standard. “We have street cleaning very regularly. There’s a spot by Twin Peaks where there’s no signs and no street cleaning, where I’ve parked previously. So I drove up there and walked the hour back home, thinking my car would be good.”
Hoping not to antagonize anyone or generate an eyesore, Lampie washed his 2005 Subaru before leaving it on a section of Panorama Drive that wasn’t in front of anyone’s house.
When he returned home about two weeks later, Lampie found a letter from AutoReturn, which holds the exclusive street towing contract with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. Inside was a bill for $1,584. Of that figure, exactly half (or $792) was for storage—$66 per day for 12 days. There was also the $336 city administration fee, the $277 charge for the tow itself, as well as a few lesser line items Lampie had to pay to get his car back.
All in all, it cost more than his rent.
“I’ve been towed in other cities,” Lampie said, “but I was pretty shocked to see how much it cost to tow and store a car [in San Francisco].”
Indeed, $66 is more than twice the $30 daily maximum at the SFMTA-owned garage at 16th and Hoff streets in the Mission, where a full month runs $275. That service has a wait list, however.
So why does it cost so much to get towed in San Francisco?
Jeffrey Tumlin, SFMTA’s director of transportation, said that fundamentally, it’s because land in San Francisco doesn’t come cheap.
“Towing and storing cars is labor- and land-intensive,” Tumlin told The Standard. “The cost of renting land is more expensive than anywhere else in the state, and our contracts require tow yards to be accessible so people can easily get their car back.”
Any reduction in towing fees would effectively steal money from other arms of SFMTA—namely Muni. Low-income San Franciscans and the unhoused can apply for a waiver on their first city tow. Tumlin encouraged car owners to sign up for the agency’s Text Before Tow program, which alerts drivers who violated certain parking restrictions.
“We do not ever want to tow a car,” Tumlin said. “SFMTA loses money on every tow.”
That claim might seem hard to square with the apparent cost savings of storing vehicles in SFMTA-owned garages. Looking at New York—another expensive city where unused land comes at a steep premium—reveals towing charges much lower than SF’s. The cost of the tow itself is a relatively paltry $140.
Further, AutoReturn’s primary facility in San Francisco lies beneath Interstate 80 on Seventh Street in SoMa—hardly prime real estate for upzoning. The company did not respond to requests for comment.
A June 2022 memo Tumlin prepared as the city re-evaluated its contract with AutoReturn contains some insights into why San Francisco’s tow fees are so astronomical.
One factor is the San Francisco Police Department, which the transit agency effectively subsidizes. SFPD handles 20% of all tows citywide but doesn’t pay SFMTA any storage fees. Another element is the fee waiver program, which is estimated to save San Francisco residents $4.5 million this year—including, presumably, those living out of recreational vehicles parked on Lake Merced Boulevard and elsewhere.
As a business, towing has yet to recover from the economic fallout of Covid. Both the annual volume (35,428 tows) and the revenue they generate ($25.4 million) are still only 80% of where they were pre-pandemic.
Interestingly, AutoReturn isn’t technically a towing company—it doesn’t own any trucks. Rather, it's the administrator of a network of 11 companies whose names you may recognize from their vehicles’ mudflaps, like Golden Gate Towing or House of Wreckers.
AutoReturn has held the city contract since 2005. The SFMTA memo says the company “continues to be an effective partner in managing the tow program and meeting or exceeding service level requirements.”
But when a chagrined Daniel Lampie asked why he had to pay so much to get his Subaru back, he was met with corporate evasiveness.
“They said this is the rate they’ve negotiated,” he said. “They didn’t give any background.”
Granted, this entire situation could have been averted by simply following the law.
You’re not supposed to leave your car parked in the same spot for more than 72 hours, but plenty of us do it, anyway. What car-owning city-dweller hasn’t thought, “This parking space is too good. I can’t give it up!” at least once or twice?
For his part, Lampie seems to have learned his lesson.
“Next time,” he said, “I’m going to park it outside San Francisco with friends in the South Bay—and make sure they have the keys to move it.”