Car towing limits Abu Dhabi parking options

An abandoned vehicle crackdown means parking with dusty windows or in the same space for two weeks can be a risky business.

United Arab Emirates - Abu Dhabi - August 6 - 2008: Abandoned vehicle  in public parking area tagged by the Municipality of the city of Abu Dhabi. (Manuel Salazar/The National)

An abandoned vehicle crackdown means parking can be a risky business In a city where drivers lament having to leave a good parking spot, authorities need little reason to tow away vehicles to unclog car parks. Dusty windows or a car occupying the same space for two weeks are enough to get it hauled off to the Baniyas impound yard. But with Abu Dhabi Municipality reporting a dramatic spike in the number of "abandoned" vehicles so far this year compared with 2009, motorists have bemoaned the lack of legal and affordable options for long-term parking.

In some cases, such as when motorists go on long holidays, leaving a car for several weeks until it is towed to the impound yard could be cheaper than paying to park it legally. When asked, Abu Dhabi Municipality would not reveal the financial penalties owners have to pay to have their vehicles released by the impound yards, but drivers who have had their cars impounded said the charges were Dh10 a day, plus a Dh250 towing penalty.

That would still be more reasonable than the daily rate for keeping a car at Abu Dhabi International Airport's Skypark zone. According to a Skypark agent and its website, parking for up to three days in the multi-storey car park without an online booking could cost up to Dh720 in Terminal Three. The short-term daily rate is Dh240; for mid-term stays, the rate is a minimum Dh800 for four days, and for long-term parking, the rates are Dh120 per day and only available at Terminal Two.

A special Skypark summer rate would be far cheaper, allowing for pre-booked parking for up to 30 days for Dh6.50 each day over the next two months. But even those people remaining in the city are being targeted by the tow trucks. Graeme Head learned not long ago that the inspectors who monitor the city for abandoned autos are a no-nonsense crew. The British civil engineer, who lives in a residential area in Al Mushrif, returned to his home one evening in May to discover his cherished Series One Jaguar E-Type gone.

"Imagine the shock," Head, 39, said. "I wasn't on leave. It was parked just outside my villa and I just kept it covered. I was at work, but my wife was in the house. If somebody had knocked on the door, made an attempt at an inquiry, they would have known it wasn't [abandoned]." His scare came during the peak of a summer campaign to clear the streets of vehicles presumed abandoned by their previous owners.

From November 2009 to June of this year, the municipality has seized 2,268 cars. In all of last year, it towed away 1,595. But Head's treasured E-Type was certainly not forsaken. Following some panicked calls to the police and the municipality, he worked out that his vintage 1964 ride - purchased for Dh70,000 and lovingly restored for Dh20,000 - was in a municipal lot about 40 minutes outside the city.

"The guy told me it had been taken to a compound near a place called Al Wathba," he said. Even after he found his car in a graveyard of crumpled and dirt-coated vehicles, Head was not able to claim it until he returned with a slip proving he had paid a fine of Dh270. "It was immensely frustrating," he said. "I asked the municipality what is the towing rule? They just said you can't leave a car parked somewhere. I said, 'What if I go on vacation for two weeks?' They said if you leave your car standing, we can take it away."

In Head's case, the time and towing fees to reclaim the E-Type were penalties for neglecting his red Jag for several weeks while he was preoccupied with caring for his newborn son. Still, he insisted the car was no eyesore and he could even see it from his balcony. "It's neat, clean and tidy. If I had a car sitting there with 2mm of dust on it, I could understand why it was taken," he said. "When I drove to this Al Wathba compound, I saw lots of cars covered thick with dust with flat tyres. I was surprised my car was targeted."

Abu Dhabi Municipality did not respond to requests for an interview to clarify where motorists should park if they have no plans to drive for several days. However, a public relations representative said that there are ways keep the tow trucks at bay. "What to do is I just give my building watchman Dh200 to wash it every day," the spokesman said. "If you keep it clean, then no one from the municipality will ask you why you are parking your car here."

But the practice of paying someone to wash your car, though widespread, is illegal in Abu Dhabi. And while keeping your car clean may do for maintaining the city's image superficially, it does little to solve the capital's parking woes. Ensuring Head doesn't fall foul of the municipal rules has been tricky. He routinely parks his car in a different location to evade inspectors. "It's a bit of a crazy cat-and-mouse game," he said. "Even after I paid the fine once, the next day I got a call and they said, 'Oh you've parked the car in the same place again.' I told them that's my house, so where else am I going to park? Why can't I park at my home?"

Hossam Kreidieh was more fortunate. His black BMW was served with a warning notice posted to the windshield in April, explaining that his vehicle in Al Wahda had been monitored by the municipality and would be towed within 24 hours unless it was washed or relocated. "It was dirty; they were right," said Kreidieh, 64. "But for what remove my car? This is my place; my house here." He cleaned it the next morning and was left alone.

Still, what irked the Lebanese shop owner most was the sudden and anonymous nature of the warning. "At least give me the notice before you do anything, before you stick something to the car," he said. "Take the number. Call me. Tell me the car is dirty, can you clean it? Normal people, they do like this." Parking was a problem, he conceded, but while he approved of the introduction of the Mawaqif paid-parking programme on downtown streets, it would not be ideal for long-term parking.

"I have a shop at Hamdan Centre, and if I have to stay there from 9am to 9pm every day 12 hours, I have to pay Dh36. Can you imagine one month? That's Dh1,000," he said. "If I put my car out at my home and go outside the country and it gets dirty, maybe I'll come back and my car is not there. Maybe it has this sticker on the window." Dozens of cars with the same notice plastered to the windshields had been dumped at the impound yard in Baniyas on a recent visit. Among them were minibuses, high-end sport cars and more than a few crushed lorries.

"Accidents," said Hassam Emam, a collector at the yard, gesturing at the wasteland of wrecks. "Every day, 20 to 25 maybe come here. More small cars." Emam said it was not uncommon for car owners to wander into the compound looking for a vehicle that was unknowingly seized from them while they were on holiday. As another Al Sahraa tow truck pulled in a white Peugeot, Latif Barabarmibil, working with Thrifty Car Rental, exited the yard in a reclaimed minibus belonging to the agency.

"We do this once a week, or maybe in a month, two or three times," he said. "Customers must be responsible. If car is clean, that's good for the municipality. No problem." The minibus had racked up Dh340 in fines - Dh250 for towing fees and nine additional payments of Dh10 for each day spent in the impound yard. The capital's scarce parking options have at least opened commercial opportunities to one hotel.

Recognising the demand for long-term parking during the summer, the Holiday Inn on Airport Road last week began its "The Car You've Always Loved" promotion, allocating 100 shaded spots for public parking at Dh25 per day. "Here, you keep it in a place that's shaded, safe, and we'll return it to you clean because our team will wash it before handing it back to you," said Mohamed Deeb, the hotel's director of sales and marketing.

"We have quite a few bookings already, so I think it's going to be a popular service. Even if you go on break for a month, that's only Dh750." Deeb said he hoped the idea would be a hit with holidaymakers worried about where to store and protect their cars. "Motors are my passion," he said. "And I know there are other people who love and appreciate their cars so much they want to give it the best treatment. Not all people have parking in their area, so they can come to us out of need for the safety of their cars. The main thing is you don't need to go through the hassle if it gets towed."

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