The Streets Department converts sanitation trucks into snow plows when needed

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When the next big snowstorm hits the Philly region, you better not find yourself parked on one of the city’s snow emergency routes — or you might not see your car for a week.

That’s what happened to Tony Dong, who recently moved to South Broad Street. On the night of Jan. 31, his car was parked in his usual place between Wharton and Federal. By the next morning, it had disappeared.

When he finally found the vehicle, it was in an illegal spot blocks away from the location he’d been told, with tickets on the windshield.

Like the other designated routes, there are signs along South Broad saying parked cars must be moved during a “snow emergency.” Dong had never noticed them. “I know that I probably did the wrong thing,” he said, but he didn’t even realize a snow emergency had been declared.

When one is declared, the Streets Department converts sanitation trucks into plows that prioritize clearing snow emergency routes. These designated 10 miles include major arterial streets and those that provide access to important locations, like hospitals and police stations.

If the crews find a parked car, they contact the Philadelphia Police Department, which tows with its own trucks or dispatches the Philadelphia Parking Authority to do a courtesy tow.

“My issue is that I didn’t get any kind of notification,” said Susan Field, a Philly public school teacher whose car was also towed from South Broad. “That’s why I was annoyed. There has to be a better way of distributing information.”

You’re supposed to know which parking spots are off limits thanks to signs posted along the streets. The Office of Emergency Management also has a text alert line, and if you’re signed up, you’ll get a notice when there’s a snow emergency. But it’s been three years since the last one, and plenty of new residents are unfamiliar with the system.

Snow emergency routes crisscross the city and stretch along all kinds of roads. The entirety of Broad Street and Girard Avenue are included, plus Kelly and Lincoln drives and Roosevelt Boulevard. Smaller strips are on the list too, like sections of 6th, 16th and 26th streets.

We plotted them out in the interactive map below.

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Car found a week later — with multiple tickets on the windshield

Dong, 32, has parked his car in the same neighborhood since he moved to Philly from New York last July. Leaving his car on South Broad has become almost second nature. He didn’t know about OEM’s text alert system — or that he could follow their social media to find out whether a snow emergency had been declared.

So his car got towed. A quick Google search told him to call the PPD snow hotline (215-686-SNOW) to find out where it had been moved.

Dong said he called multiple times over the course of the last week, and the operator always told him the same thing: his 2006 Chrysler Pacifica was on the 100 block of Federal Street. Thing is, it wasn’t. He walked the mile to the supposed parking spot several times, and each time his car was nowhere to be found.

On Sunday night, he saw his car. But not on the 100 block of Federal. It was on a side street off of Federal, just a block away from his Broad Street home.

And there were two PPA tickets slapped on the windshield.

“It was not a legal parking space,” Dong said. Also, the battery was dead.

That does happen, the PPD admitted. Mix-ups are a surprisingly common fate for victims of Philadelphia’s courtesy towing system.

“While every attempt is made to get information entered in ‘real time’ there is, unfortunately, at times, a lag in entering [it] based on the volume of vehicles being relocated,” a PPD spokesperson told Billy Penn via email. “This is likely what happened in this case.”

This also happened to Dong’s neighbor, school teacher Field. After her car was towed from South Broad on Jan. 31, the PPD didn’t find it until the second time she called.

If you’re looking for up-to-date info, the Streets Department recommends signing up for emergency alerts and weather updates here, and follow @PhilaOEM and @PhilaStreets on Twitter and Facebook. If your car is towed, call 215-686-SNOW to find it.

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Michaela Winberg

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...