Dude, where’s my car?

There’s a special kind of panic induced by the realization that you’ve completely lost track of where you parked your car — or worse, that maybe it’s been stolen.

There’s a third option to consider though, and one that should, in theory, bring more comfort. It’s possible your car has been courtesy towed by the city or a contracted private company, and can be found mere blocks away from where you last had it parked.

Nothing sounds less courteous than the term “courtesy towing,” but that’s precisely what you call the relocation of a legally parked civilian vehicle at the request of the Philadelphia Police, the Philadelphia Parking Authority, or the City of Philadelphia.

No advance warning required

There are several circumstances under which cars can be hooked up and carted away to a new spot in Philadelphia — and absolutely none of them require advance notice.

Your car can get moved:

  • If city agencies or utilities are doing repair work
  • When there are events that close down stretches of roadway
  • If there’s ongoing construction to which contractors need access
  • During natural disasters and extreme or unpredictable weather

The PPA only relocates vehicles during “big events such as the Broad Street run” or during snow emergencies, said PPA spokesperson Marty O’Rourke. “Vehicles are relocated as a courtesy to the driver, so they do not incur a towing or impoundment fee,”

Although there’s no requirement that car owners be notified before their vehicles are relocated, there are often posted signs advising of a temporary parking restriction, he noted.

“It is highly recommended that you take note of the temporary parking restrictions posted by the Philadelphia Police Department, or the designated entity,” O’Rourke said, “to avoid having your vehicle relocated or impounded.”

What to do if it happens

If you’ve paced sidewalk after sidewalk to find that familiar license plate with no luck and think your car might’ve been relocated, there are two preliminary steps, per O’Rourke:

  1. Call 215-683-9775 to check if the vehicle was moved by the PPA. If so, they may be able to help you find it.
  2. Get in touch with your local police precinct — if the car was relocated by private tow operators via a request from the city or developers, that’s who might have info.

You can also go old-school and rely on a map.

Cars that have been courtesy towed must be relocated within a five-block radius of their original spot. So if you methodically trace the entire grid within that radius, like this Reddit user, you’re likely to find your ride.

If your vehicle is damaged during relocation, you can call the PPA’s office at 215-683-9600 and be connected with the Risk Management Department.

A better solution?

Fishtown resident Sarah Schmalbach recently tweeted a question about courtesy towing in Philly, which led to an online discussion about the practice.

In the past, Schmalbach told Billy Penn, she’s lost track of where she parked her car and has always assumed the worst, that it had been stolen. “I didn’t even know that it could have been towed and sitting just a few blocks away,” she said.

To Schmalbach, a project manager at the Lenfest Institute who recently co-led the Guardian Mobile Innovation Lab in New York, having some kind of notification system is a nobrainer.

“If a car is towed, it seems like there should be a way to inform car owners of where the car is,” Schmalbach said, suggesting the city could do it via email or text message. “Maybe even give them a pin on a map, and give them MeterUp credits or something of similar value for the inconvenience.”

Chicago offers an online search tool that lets residents search for their relocated cars via license plate, make and date or location and date. No such tool yet exists in Philadelphia.