Sgt. August Johnson and his parking-enforcement team patrol Ventura Boulevard, on the lookout for that bane of the rush-hour commute: parked cars blocking traffic.
A 16-year veteran of the parking game, he knows scofflaws can often be found near the dry cleaner and in front of the automated teller machine. Some forget to read the parking sign; others think they can quickly run an errand without getting caught.
He’s seen all the tricks.
“We have people who pull up, pop their hazard lights on, run inside and come back out,” Johnson said. “These hazard lights are basically calling to us as we drive past, ‘Here I am, here I am, here I am!’ ”
There are more than 1,300 miles of tow-away zones in Los Angeles, designed to clear traffic lanes of parked cars so traffic can flow more smoothly, especially during rush hour. But on an average day, only about 60 parked cars are towed. About 7% of cars that received parking citations in tow zones were actually towed away in the last fiscal year, which ended June 30.
But the city is about to change that.
Beginning Monday, some of the city’s busiest streets will have tow trucks lined up at staging areas ready to nab cars as soon as the rush-hour restrictions start. Extra parking officers will be deployed during rush hour in a campaign to tow violators en masse -- and in the process send a message.
“For those people not following the law, it’s going to be a very dramatic shift,” said Jimmy Price, chief of parking enforcement for the city’s transportation department. “For those who abide by the law, I think they’ll find traveling in L.A. city streets will be quicker and easier.”
Until now, parking enforcement officers had the discretion to decide whether or not to call a tow truck when they cited a vehicle in a tow-away zone. Often, they decide against it, in part because most violators are usually parked for only a few minutes -- it takes longer to get a tow truck at the scene. If the officer does call a truck, he must wait for it to arrive -- preventing him from ticketing more cars.
The new directive, involving 35 major streets, requires officers to call a tow truck for every vehicle they ticket. As many as 60 officers will be assigned to this detail, about double the number who usually monitor the rush hour tow-away zones. The crackdown will eventually be expanded onto arterial streets.
The armada of tow trucks and parking officers is designed to make the process more efficient. By early next year, the city is also expected to contract with a software company to devise ways to cut the time it takes to complete impound paperwork, Price said.
Problem streets include Wilshire, Pico and Olympic boulevards as well as Figueroa Street and portions of Pacific Coast Highway. Most of the targeted streets, often used as alternatives to freeways, are in West L.A., Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley.
Along traffic Officer Daryl Salangron’s route in the San Fernando Valley, scofflaws have already had a glimpse of the future. Along Ventura Boulevard, near the San Diego Freeway, the parking enforcement agency launched a pilot program to crack down. The result: more than 50% of the cars cited here are also towed.
Just after 3 p.m. Wednesday, trucks from Howard Sommers Towing Inc. were already lined up near Ventura Boulevard and Woodley Avenue.
A truck had just hauled a car yards away and was about to hook Ardyce Cooper’s car when she hurried up to Salangron and yelled “Wait a minute, wait a minute!”
Cooper, 76, of Woodland Hills, said she had been in a medical office with her husband Terry, 77, who had recently had shoulder surgery. He told her she’d better check on the car.
“I come out here, and there’s this big great truck here ready to pull me away,” Cooper said, holding her $65 parking ticket.
She said she had not seen the sign because her view had been obstructed by a tree.
“Sit down and look from here. That tree covers it up,” Cooper said. “I looked to make sure it was not [a red zone], I got out and put money in the meter, and I come out here and see this guy giving me a ticket.”
Her car was not towed because it had not been hooked yet.
Later, Neil Algueza, 30, of Glendale almost had his car towed.
The computer service technician had parked his car and put in enough quarters in a meter for an hour. By the time he came out shortly after 4 p.m., he had a ticket and a truck was preparing to tow his VW Jetta.
“It’s part my mistake. I didn’t see the sign,” Algueza said. Then, in a refrain parking officers say they commonly hear, he added: “They’re supposed to put bigger signs. It’s part my fault. But it’s confusing because I never saw the sign. It’s very small.”
Salangron said many parking violators along Ventura Boulevard simply make a common mistake.
“In the majority of cases I come upon, they just didn’t read the signs,” said Salangron, a 17-year veteran. “They just want to park, put money in the meters and go.”
But other motorists, especially on Pico Boulevard or Alvarado Street, are “short-duration violators” who are well aware they are breaking the law and betting they won’t get a ticket, let alone get towed, Price said.
Some merchants believe tow-away zones hurt business, but would prefer that the city either enforce the law, or just get rid of it, said Jay Handal, president of the West Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce.
If the city follows through and tows away illegally parked vehicles, business owners at least hope that shoppers will arrive at their stores sooner because of swifter traffic, Handal said.
“Either tow them or let them park,” he added. “But don’t disguise your revenue-generating source by calling it a movement to move traffic because you’re not moving traffic if you don’t tow.”