Montreal cars are being towed by the thousands each winter, even when drivers follow the rules
City of Montreal admits Info-Neige app, orange sign systems are flawed, but it's working on a fix
One day last January, Matthew Kalat watched the tell-tale orange signs go up on his side of Ostell Crescent, warning that snow would be removed between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. So he moved his car to the opposite side, where no signs had been posted.
The next morning, he found that both sides of his street in Montreal's Côte-des-Neiges district had been cleared, and dozens of vehicles had been towed and ticketed — including his own.
He figured snow-clearing crews had decided arbitrarily overnight to clear both sides of the street in one go.
"I guess they were expecting us to go out in the middle of the night to check whether the orange signs had changed sides," Kalat told CBC News in an email.
Kalat is just one of thousands of Montrealers whose vehicles have been towed by snow-removal contractors, even though their owners believed them to be legally parked: either crews did not put up the orange signs ahead of time, or Info-Neige did not indicate when a street would be cleared.
An analysis by CBC News found that since 2015, close to 3,000 vehicles have been towed outside the hours that Info-Neige indicated snow-clearing was set to take place.
That's a conservative estimate, because the data available is incomplete. The real number could be much higher.
The City of Montreal does not dispute these figures, recognizing the app has flaws.
The chart below shows a sample of these tows and when they happened.
To find these wrongful tows, CBC examined the data on vehicles towed since late 2015, cross-referencing it with historic snow-removal schedules published by Info-Neige. We isolated tows that happened up to 12 hours before and after the posted restricted hours.
In Kalat's case, the snow-clearing operation on Ostell Crescent was scheduled for Jan. 18 — six days after his street was actually plowed.
Info-Neige app sold as way to reduce tows
The snow-clearing hours in the Info-Neige app are not meant to replace the orange signs, which always take precedence.
However, when the app was launched in 2015, one of its selling points was that it would reduce the risk of being towed by better informing residents of street-cleaning times. However, the number of tows hasn't budged in the last few years.
The Plante administration says it was a mistake to promote the app that way, and it's looking at ways to make snow-clearing schedules more accurate.
"We're not making a better app to resolve the towing problem. It's to make sure citizens have all the information at the right time," said François William Croteau, borough mayor of Rosemont–La-Petite-Patrie and the executive committee member responsible for Montreal's Smart City initiative.
When the decision to clear a street is made at a borough, the parking restriction hours are punched manually into the Info-Neige system, Croteau said. This, he said, is subject to human error.
"The problem is not the boroughs," he said. "It's the process and tools the city gave them."
The city began reviewing ways to improve data entry on the Info-Neige app last month.
The goal is to create a system in which snow-removal schedules are entered automatically in each borough. An improved version is expected sometime next year.
The point of making a better app is to make it easier for people to get around, Croteau said. Vehicle owners can look at the app to figure out the best time to return home in their vehicle or to plan outings during snow-removal times.
However, even a perfect system won't reduce tows by much, Croteau said: some residents simply decide not to move their vehicles and pay the fine.
"A lot of people tell us it's too complicated to find a place for the car. So accept they will be towed," he said.
Orange signs also riddled with problems
Most of the dubious tows identified by CBC News were in the Plateau-Mont-Royal and Ville-Marie boroughs, where there are population density is high, and street parking is hard to find.
However, few Montrealers use the Info-Neige app to avoid towing. Most residents rely on the orange signs that advance crews put up in the hours before the snow-clearing crews arrive.
CBC News took to social media to ask Montrealers to share their stories of getting towed without warning. Of the 22 vehicle owners who responded, most said that those orange signs had not been posted when they parked.
Orange signs indicating parking restrictions for the next morning are supposed to go up by 9 p.m. the night before. For overnight snow-clearing, beginning at 7 p.m., the signs must go up by 1 p.m. the same day.
Croteau said the city administration knows that orange signs aren't always posted according to the rules.
"Maybe a borough makes a mistake, doesn't respect the advance time needed before putting up the orange signs. That's a local problem. It happens sometimes," Croteau said.
It happened to Debbie Mankovitz, who parked her car on Van Horne Avenue on the night of Feb. 10, 2017. No orange signs were up, she said.
The next morning, Mankovitz assumed her car had been stolen. Then she noticed the orange signs had been placed on perpendicular streets. She assumed snow-clearing crews decided to plow Van Horne during the night, without bothering to have put up warning signs.
With this evidence in hand, she successfully contested her ticket.
CBC News cross-referenced towing records from the Info-Remorquage system with historic Info-Neige schedules collected by Christophe Deprez, a programmer who made the competing InfoNeige.ca application.
Tows were linked to street sides using the géobase double dataset. But because the GPS locations of towed cars are not precise enough to link to a specific street side, utmost care was taken to ensure vehicles weren't wrongly linked to the opposite side they were towed from.
Only vehicles towed up to 12 hours before or 12 hours after a snow-removal time on Info-Neige were considered. Although there are confirmed tows that happened several days outside a posted schedule, it's impossible to know if these were related to snow removal.
The complete analysis, along with the source data, are available on GitHub.
With data provided by Christophe Deprez