Birmingham City Council

Residents Complain About Predatory Towing Downtown, Say It Will Stall Economic Development if Not Fixed

Shelley E. Smith of Premium Parking speaks during a hearing on towing cars. (Photo by Solomon Crenshaw Jr.)

Matt Lyons said he’s not in favor of putting towing companies out of business.

“When your car’s broken down on the side of the road,” he said, “the tow company is your best friend. That being said, what I’m against is predatory towing, which takes advantage of the citizens of Birmingham only to enrich the owners of companies like Parking Enforcement Systems.”

Lyons was among a number of people who paraded to a podium Wednesday night at Boutwell Auditorium to talk about predatory towing practices in Birmingham. He recounted having paid for 3-hour parking as he attended a meeting, returning 30 minutes late to find that his car had been towed away.

“I think it’s very bad for the image of Birmingham,” he said.

City officials attended the meeting and told the crowd there are several measures are being considered to mitigate the towing issue. One calls for a 15-minute grace period before a car could be towed, Julie Barnard of the city attorney’s office said. Others included adding warnings on parking apps to check that entered information was entered correctly, and requiring towing companies to release towed vehicles to owners who have proof they paid for parking.

“As an investor, I’m trying to grow Birmingham,” Lyons said. “I find start-ups and I encourage businesses to be put in Birmingham. Predatory towing sets these efforts back. When your car is towed, you feel violated.

Matthew Lyons, left, exchanges towing stories with James Sasser during a public hearing June 7, 2023. (Photo by Solomon Crenshaw Jr.)

“Since my car was towed, I’m more hesitant to come downtown,” the Mountain Brook resident said. “I’m more likely to have a meeting somewhere else. People have heard about my story and my friends feel the same way. They don’t want to come downtown and risk getting towed.”

John Parker asked Wednesday night what “overnight parking” means. The owner of Dave’s Pub in Five Points South told members of the Birmingham City Council that message, posted on a lot near his establishment, means a vehicle parked there at 2 a.m. will be towed.

“You have people that are visiting town, coming in from out of town, from over the mountain wanting to put money into the city of Birmingham, and they’re met with an ambiguous sign that has an arbitrary 2 a.m. cutoff,” Parker said. “Why not just say 2 a.m.? They’re sitting out there at 1:50 and they will tow a car at exactly 2 o’clock in the morning.

“It’s not just patrons that I meet with. People are furious every Thursday, Friday, Saturday night when their car’s towed. It says overnight parking.”

Unclear signage was repeatedly cited as a problem when it comes to parking issues in Birmingham. Darrell O’Quinn, who chairs the transportation committee of the Birmingham City Council, said ambiguity of signs on parking lots is a concern he and other council members appreciated hearing Wednesday.

Birmingham City Council President Wardine Alexander and Councilor Darrell O’Quinn, chair of the council’s Transportation Committee, speak during a hearing on predatory towing. (Photo by Solomon Crenshaw Jr.)

“That was something that hadn’t been expressed to us previously,” he said. “I think that was really valuable for us to hear and several other things that were mentioned that I think were aspects that we will now address in the changes that we’re considering.”

About 50 people turned out for the meeting in the temporary city council chamber upstairs at Boutwell. O’Quinn said there will be additional opportunities for the public to provide input on the matter as discussion moves to various council committees and ultimately to the full council.

“The office of the city attorney is actively working on this,” the councilman said, noting a pair of ordinances that will be revised. “They (lawyers) communicated to me ahead of tonight’s meeting that they basically said, ‘Okay, we’ve got to set our pencils down, have this meeting, and then as soon as the meetings over we’ll pick them back up and continue addressing some of these issues.’ When they feel confident that they’re ready, it’s near completion, it’ll come to one or more council committees or a recommendation to the full council, and then a public hearing will be set for consideration of these changes in a council meeting.”

O’Quinn and other council members at the hearing heard more of the kinds of complaints that have been coming to them, such as instances when a vehicle being towed within minutes of the motorist walking away or even before the person has walked away.

A public hearing was held on predatory towing on June 7, 2023)

The transportation committee chair admitted that the stories sounded like something from a situation comedy, except nobody’s laughing.

“That’s right. It’s not funny. As several people said, 160 bucks is very significant,” he said. That’s how much it costs to get a car from the towing lot.

Some folks mentioned that’s made the difference between them deciding to come to the city center or going somewhere else where they’re not at that kind of risk.”

O’Quinn added that concerns of predatory towing extend beyond the city center.

“It’s just that we’ve seen the greatest number of complaints in the city center, and in Lakeview in particular,” he said.