Abandoned Vehicles, Chicago Towing, and a Complicated History

By Joseph Crump and Giovanni Velez

The Situation

Since Jan. 1, 2011, there have been over 250,000 abandoned vehicle service requests to 311, the non-emergency police number in Chicago. Around 200,000 of those are unique requests. Over 10,000 of those requests were made since the start of 2020. 

According to the Department of Street and Sanitation, a vehicle is classified as abandoned if it meets one or more conditions of the following criteria:

  • On a public way in a state of disrepair as to be incapable of being driven in its present condition.
  • Has not been moved or used for more than seven consecutive days and is apparently deserted.
  • Has been left on the public way without state registration or a temporary state registration placard for two or more days.
  • Is a hazardous dilapidated vehicle left in full view of the general public, whether on public or private property.
  • This does not apply to bicycles.
A vehicle reported as abandoned in the Belmont-Cragin neighborhood of Chicago. Photo: Giovanni Velez

“There’s a seven-day standard but there’s also a standard if it looks like it’s inoperable or hazard or suffering from neglect, they can deem it abandoned,” said Joseph Schwieterman, Director of the Chadwick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul University.

Ruperto Medina, a Chicago Police Officer with 13 years of service, said the vehicles are primarily found in the South and West Sides of Chicago because of so many empty lots there.

“You have abandoned lots [where] a lot of vehicles are [found], especially on the West Side where there’s actual abandoned lots. A lot of people dump their cars there. I say that there are a lot of abandoned vehicles on the South and West Side just because they are abandoned lots to drop these cars off on,” Medina said.

Data from the City of Chicago Data Portal backs Medina’s estimation, as visualized by this map detailing the 1,000 most recent abandoned vehicle service requests.

In this map, it shows that the concentration of the most recent 1,000 abandoned vehicle service requests congregate more heavily in the West and South Sides compared to other areas of Chicago. 

Much like the disparity between locations, the same kind of disproportion exists in the color of the abandoned vehicles.

According to that same dataset, white and black vehicles are the most common with 33,471 and 32,867 respectively. Followed by the color gray rounding out the top three with 22,815.

According to Axlta, which publishes the largest annual Global Popularity Report of its kind in the automotive industry, in 2019 the most popular colors in North America were white (29%), black (19%), and gray (17%). So it makes sense that these vehicles are most likely to be seen in an abandoned state. Simply put, there are more of them on the street.

Here is a pie graph displaying the color distribution of the 10 most common abandoned vehicles in Chicago.

Graphic by: Joseph Crump and Giovanni Velez

The Perception

Imagine this: you’ve been walking the same way to work every day, and every day you see the same old dilapidated little car sitting on the side of the road or in someone’s yard. 

You might have some questions about the car, its history, or even why it hasn’t been taken care of yet. What happens to those cars? Whose job is it to take them away? Why is it still here? Does this mean I live in a bad neighborhood?

“Abandoned cars create blight in a neighborhood,” Schwieterman said. “Abandoned cars contribute to perceptions that neighborhoods are suffering from disinvestment and also damage the aesthetic qualities of a street.”

According to an old psychology theory called the Broken Windows Theory, seeing disrepair and disorder could incite further disrepair and disorder. It’s similar to the famous saying “violence begets violence.”

William McCarty, the director of the Center of Research in Criminality, Law, and Justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said he doesn’t believe this theory holds much merit.

“I don’t really see a strong support these days for like a broken windows theory, because usually those theories are centered in neighborhoods that already had these very deep problems that are more likely to be causing crime, as opposed to just the abandoned vehicles or the broken windows, so to speak,” McCarty said.

In other words, abandoned vehicles in poorer neighborhoods is a symptom of greater systemic inequality, not the root cause. 

The reality of the location of these vehicles is more likely attributed to the history of Chicago’s tendency to racially segregate and divide communities.

“The poor tend to be concentrated in certain parts of the city. And that likely results in some disadvantaged areas having a much bigger problem with abandoned vehicles than more affluent areas,” Schwieterman said. “And our city is also stratified heavily on racial lines, which certainly aggravates frustration about these kinds of issues.”

The History of Towing and Chicago’s View

Up until 1989, the city of Chicago had its own tow trucks to perform this type of service for the city. This was part of the city-wide move under Richard Daley to privatize city contract work.

However, this is only a part of the problem that Chicagoans have been having with private towing companies. One of the most notorious examples of aggressive and allegedly illegal towing practices is the “Lincoln Towing Service

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

 Their legendarily infamous practices awarded them permanent recognition in a popular folk song: the Lincoln Park Pirates.

According to a 1988 article by the Chicago Tribune, pedestrians were sometimes knifed, beaten with tire irons, and stomped when they refused to let their vehicles be seized.

“I found that interesting to write whenever you introduce the complexity of a private business being involved in sort of a city service, you’ve got different priorities. That private company wants to pick up as many cars as possible, right?,” McCarty said.

However, on the matter of abandoned vehicles, these companies have no say. According to Medina, a police officer is required to fill out a tow slip declaring a vehicle abandoned. 

Additionally, towing companies give some people a second chance. 

“I’ve met a lot of ex gang members that are working for private tow companies that have city contracts. And while it may cost more, because the city’s actually paying someone, it does give the underdog a second chance of making a living for themselves,” Medina said.

If you would like to report an abandoned vehicle, call 311 to make an abandoned vehicle service request or fill out this online form.

The service is currently unavailable due to the coronavirus outbreak. It should be available again when the statewide lockdown in Illinois is lifted.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.