San Francisco

Despite a willingness to drive almost anywhere abroad, there's one city in all of the United States where I've refused -- over decades of travel -- to voluntarily rent a car. That city is San Francisco, which appears to have a hate-hate relationship with rental car companies. Between mass transit*, cheap private cars, and new ride-sharing services like Uber, the condensed nature of the city ordinarily made the prospect of renting a car plus paying for parking a more expensive endeavor.

The Fee Detective also isn't fond of the tax burden imposed in the region, having recently seen $40.70 in taxes on a discounted two-day weekend rental from the airport. San Francisco manages to out-Chicago Chicago on airport taxes, and that's not a good thing.

Recently, San Francisco has made rental car industry low-lights due to the involvement of lawmakers and lawyers. Both groups have taken a questionable path to solving problems that are largely the creation of San Francisco -- unchecked vehicle burglaries and excessive tolls.

Rental Cars and the San Francisco Burglary Epidemic

San Francisco has an unmitigated crisis with thefts from vehicles, whether those vehicles are driven by tourists, local residents, or government officials. The Atlantic reported that the city saw almost 26,000 cars broken into in 2015. Even the Chief of Police was a victim of a vehicle break-in  A news crew was able to give police a description of thieves along with license plate numbers, without any resolution. The city decided in April 2017 to propose a stand (albeit an exceedingly weak stand) to help prevent future burglaries from rental cars. Not burglaries from the cars of residents, just burglaries from rental cars. 

Human remains got stolen from a rental car at Fisherman's Wharf the next day.

No, we're not kidding.  

We know what the non-San Francisco residents may be thinking -- if the city has decided that vehicle burglaries are completely out of control, the city might want to increase policing and/or punish the criminals. Ha. Instead, the proposed legislation would make it illegal for rental cars in San Francisco or the San Francisco International Airport to have barcodes or any form of visible identification as rentals.

Just how bad is the situation deemed by the Supervisors? Their proposed regulation says that many tourists really don't know how unsafe San Francisco is at the moment:

"Further, many visitors are unfamiliar with San Francisco and its hazards, and may face special linguistic and cultural barriers."

The local officials describing San Francisco like a third-world country sure makes me want to rent a car there! We've got answers to your questions, like a helpful, non-bankrupt Radio Shack (so not like Radio Shack at all).

Question: Don't all the media reports say this is a problem for residents as well as tourists?
Answer: Yes but solving the problem would require a change of police or jailing practices. This was just a way for politicians to say they were taking an action.  

Question: If I rent a car outside of San Francisco and drive into town?
Answer: Your fault if the car gets broken into due to a window bar code. Nothing personal, though.

Question: If I rent a Chevy Malibu at the airport with Illinois tags, doesn't that proclaim "tourist in a rental car"?
Answer: The Supervisors didn't consider the license plate aspect, despite being the single-most visible cue to a thief.

Then there is the lawsuit, where the City Attorney decided to attack Hertz.

Toll-Based Lawsuit against Hertz

The iconic Golden Gate is a test case of California Consumer Protection laws and cashless tolls.

The City Attorney of San Francisco decided to sue Hertz -- along with business partners American Traffic Solutions and PlatePass -- because of tolls on the Golden Gate Bridge. And guess who sets the toll levels (and policies) on the Golden Gate Bridge? The answer is largely "San Francisco". Despite the lawsuit's assertions, the Golden Gate Bridge didn't convert itself into cashless tolling in 2013. The Board of Directors of the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District made the bridge a cashless tolling zone and nine members of the Board of Directors come from the City and County of San Francisco.

A reader of the AutoSlash blog already knows our shared feelings against tolls and toll-collection mechanisms. Yet the City of San Francisco's lawsuit sounds like a plotline even the writers of the Dukes of Hazzard would reject, suing a rental car company due to actions that were largely government-induced. 

I'm Going to Get Those Rental Car Companies (courtesy IMDB)

We're not lawyers here at AutoSlash (we work for a living) but this seems like absolute fishing for a legal case. Perhaps we read too many documents related to rental car contracts and tolls but the legal filing seems like drivers and consumers were completely helpless against Hertz. The Cliff Notes version: 

  • The City and County of San Francisco are largely responsible for the bridge being toll-less.
  • The City and County of San Francisco are largely responsible for implementing the cashless provision differently than every other bridge in California.
  • The City of San Francisco admits that the cost/deposit of a California FasTrak makes it unsuitable for tourists.
  • The City of San Francisco complains that the PlatePass program is listed on Page 6 of the Hertz rental agreement.
  • The City of San Francisco states that a user can't decline the PlatePass service. Of course, the service is declined unless used (the definition of "opt-in").
  • The City of San Francisco describes the rental car contract and jacket as a "dizzying array of documents" that a consumer can't understand.
  • The City of San Francisco complains that rental car agents can't change the Hertz contract for individual renters.
  • The City of San Francisco literally makes the statement that Hertz's PlatePass documents specify that the service is for use on "toll roads", not "toll bridges".
  • The City of San Francisco uses a consumer's complaint of "I was never made aware of a bridge toll ..." That sounds like a complaint for the government agencies who would label the toll road.
  • The City of San Francisco introduces an Oakland, CA (outside the City and County) rental agreement as evidence, assuming there's some required "warning radius" for the Golden Gate Bridge.
  • The City of San Francisco asserts that Hertz didn't tell customers the lowest-cost option for crossing the Golden Gate Bridge.
  • The City of San Francisco objects to the billing by a third-party organization.

The lowest-cost option is effectively the crux of this lawsuit's 74 pages of whining. It's not that PlatePass doesn't save a renter time on a cashless toll, or that the PlatePass terms are incomprehensible. At AutoSlash, we dislike the ways that tolls are charged by the rental car companies but these are disclosed terms. The PlatePass acknowledgment is even in the rules when making a Hertz reservation. The City of San Francisco simply objects to Hertz billing rental car drivers who haven't paid the tolls within 48 hours -- both the PlatePass fee and the full toll -- through a third party.

Paying a toll within two days to get a discounted rate?

A driver can simply pay the toll online within 48 hours of crossing the bridge at a discount. If the toll is paid within the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District's timeline, then PlatePass never comes into play -- the vehicle owner (Hertz) isn't notified of the outstanding toll. Again, if there were only a way the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District (the government) could put up signs telling non-FasTrak holders to call or pay via any easy-to-remember website to get the lowest cost on their toll crossings ... The City's arguments are effectively that the bridge's toll-pay mechanism isn't clear to individuals driving over the bridge. Yet Hertz (and then the other rental car companies) will end up settling this case. 

Functional Radio Shack time again:

Question: If the problem isn't Hertz-specific, why is the City Attorney suing Hertz?
Answer: They drew a company name out of a hat.

Question: Isn't Hertz the smallest of the three major rental car conglomerates (Enterprise Holdings, AvisBudget Group, and then Hertz Global Holdings)?
Answer: Yes. 

Question: How long before San Francisco sues Enterprise because the rental car company doesn't provide a list of the lowest-cost gas stations? 
Answer: We suspect that will occur within a few months.

Question: When will the City of San Francisco sue the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District (largely "itself") for inadequately informing drivers of upcoming tolls?
Answer: Whenever the City Attorney has "use-or-lose" funds at the end of a fiscal year.

Ready to book your next rental, avoiding crime and tolls in San Francisco? Or avoiding San Francisco altogether? Click below to request a quote now. 

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