Op-ed: Berkeley’s 72-hour parking limit is outdated, discriminatory and needs to go

It felt great to return to Berkeley recently after two weeks in Brazil without robberies, accidents or mishaps. But when we arrived just blocks from our home, we were greeted with an unsavory welcome: Our cars had vanished from the North Berkeley street where we parked them.

They hadn’t been stolen. They had been towed. Why? A neighbor, upset that her “usual spot” on a city street was occupied by an unknown car, called the police. Just like that, we became victims of Berkeley’s draconian yet little known law preventing cars from being parked in one spot for more than 72 hours, otherwise known as Berkeley Municipal Code section 14.36.050.

The penalty for our ignorance? An $1,100 tow fee per vehicle plus $150 to the police department to release both cars, and two $60 parking tickets for good measure — a total just shy of $2,500, instantly doubling the cost of our vacation. Welcome home!

Ignorance of the law may not be an excuse for breaking it. But the city code regulating the maximum number of days that residents can park their cars on city streets isn’t posted anywhere except in the fine print of a municipal law book. How are residents to obey a law that, unlike 2-hour parking restrictions and street cleaning days, isn’t listed anywhere?

We are apartment renters and, though our unit doesn’t come with a parking space, it’s never a problem because we work during the week and we never leave our cars parked anyplace for long. But because of Berkeley Municipal Code section 14.36.050, it seems we’ll never be able to go on vacation without putting our cars into a paid, private lot or leaving them at the home of a friend who has a garage. The deputy city attorney thinks this isn’t a big deal and suggested that the next time we leave town, we ask a friend to move our car every three days.

Really?

The time has come for Berkeley to update this outdated law. More and more frequently, apartment buildings don’t come with parking spaces, requiring residents to park on the street. Without a dedicated parking spot, what can renters do if they go away for a week, or simply don’t want to get in their car for more than a three-day stretch at a time?

This city has smart ambitious climate goals to reduce emissions 33% by 2020, encouraging residents to leave vehicles at home. Yet when we do, we’re penalized for it. Even having a residential parking permit doesn’t grant the ability to park anywhere for longer than three days. This law, which few people know exists because it isn’t posted, is especially discriminatory toward renters who don’t have a parking space.

The law should be changed. At the very least, Berkeley should create signs that alert residents and visitors so they’re spared the astronomical towing and storage fees. Berkeley prides itself for being a forward-thinking city. But if it truly wants us to step out of our cars, this policy needs to go.

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Michael Levitin is a freelance journalist living in Berkeley.