You see them everywhere in Seattle.
Tiny Smart cars, with those unmistakable blue-and-white paint jobs. They make up Car2Go’s ever-growing fleet — 750 of them currently crisscross the city every day.
The car-sharing service, which launched here in December 2012, is wildly popular among Seattle’s carless young urbanites.
Apparently, it’s also a big hit with local tow-truck drivers.
Before the arrival of Car2Go in Seattle, the number of Smart cars towed annually was in the single digits. But in 2014 — the most recent data available from the Seattle Police Department — Smart cars ranked as the city’s fourth most-towed car. There were 709 Smart Car tows that year, or nearly two per day.
While Subarus may be ubiquitous in Seattle, Smart cars got towed more than Outbacks and Legacys combined.
How do I know that nearly all these Smart car tows are Car2Go vehicles?
The answer is simple: Almost nobody in Seattle actually owns a Smart car.
For whatever reason — and maybe it’s because of their notoriously wonky transmissions — very few have sold here. According to Department of Licensing records, there are slightly more than 100 of the ultra-compacts registered as personal vehicles in Seattle; that ranks Smart as the 42nd most popular make in town.
Car2Go members don’t need to feed the meter when they park on regular city streets, and the cars can sit there indefinitely without being ticketed. But those special parking privileges don’t extend to tow-away zones, such as bus lanes.
The company does what it can to prevent towings. Car2Go’s fleet team monitors where members park, and tries to move cars that have been left in tow zones. “Unfortunately, we just can’t be everywhere,” said Michael Hoitink, Car2Go Seattle general manager. “Occasionally they do get towed.”
And that could cost you. On top of paying the towing charges — they can run as much as $300 or more — the member will be assessed a Car2Go service fee of $150.
But the company also might let you off the hook — at least the first time it happens. It’s not uncommon for the company to swallow the towing bill and waive the service fee.
“There’s no hard-and-fast rule. We take it case by case,” Hoitink said. “We use it as an opportunity to educate our members about parking rules, so they don’t park a vehicle illegally in the future.”
According to Hoitink, the most common mistake is parking a Car2Go in time-restricted zones — a place where parking is allowed until a certain hour in the day, then it turns into a transit lane or other tow-away zone.
Sometimes members park there because they didn’t read the parking signs carefully. But sometimes, they’re taking a calculated risk.
That’s bound to happen when it’s tough to find a parking spot — and at 41 cents per minute, circling around in a Car2Go adds up.
So a driver might decide to take a bit of a gamble, hoping that another member will reserve the car and whisk it away before the parking lane converts to a tow-away zone. If you park there early in the day, the chances of that happening are good; but cut it too close and you’re asking for trouble.
For the record, Car2Go rules instruct members to not park on any street that changes to a tow-away zone.
“A good rule of thumb is, if you wouldn’t leave your personal car in that spot, you shouldn’t park a Car2Go there either,” Hoitink said.
Then again, the reason a lot of folks join Car2Go is because they don’t own a car.
Seattle is Car2Go’s No. 1 U.S. market, with nearly 83,000 members.