Free disabled parking spots aren’t the problem – it’s when metered parking spots can be occupied for free by anyone with a placard that people tend to take advantage.
No one is in favor of making parking for people with disabilities more difficult. But what is the overall value of refusing to compromise that principle, when current system is open to enormous fraud? Is it worth keeping one-size-fits-all placards if it costs Chicago as much as $22m per year, the estimated expense of keeping parking free for all disabled placard holders, not just those with major mobility challenges?
Is it worth charging some people with placards for parking if cruising around looking for a spot costs the 15-block Westwood Village neighborhood “950,000 vehicle-miles of travel each year,” according to a 1984 study? With cities and towns more strapped than ever for cash, efficiency gains and cash savings like those are nothing to sniff at.
We’ve called out individual cities for the abuse of disabled parking placards before, but the problem seems to be reaching epidemic proportions – enough to get attention from parking experts like Donald Shoup, other academics, and newspapers.
In a recent editorial in the LA Times, Shoup made the case that disabled placard abuse is so frequent in some places that it’s crippling city incomes and leading to scarcer parking, which results in higher carbon emissions and time lost while cruising for a spot:
In 2010 a UCLA survey of placard use on several blocks in downtown Los Angeles found that cars with disabled placards occupied most of the spaces most of the time. For five hours of the day, cars with placards occupied every space on one block. The meter rate was $4 an hour, but the meters earned only 32 cents an hour because cars with placards consumed 80% of the time.
[…] When police officers in Alexandria, Va., interviewed drivers who returned to cars displaying disabled placards, they found that 90% were using them illegally. [Ed.: All emphasis ours]
At least 22 states make parking free as a courtesy for motorists with disabled placards; in addition to these states, many cities (like New York City) allow for free parking with a placard, and at least one state (Arkansas) formally leaves the matter to local governments.
On the surface, this is an easy way to increase the accessibility of buildings and services for the small minority of people who are in serious need. But even among those whose doctors have signed off on a placard, only a very small minority have disabilities so severe that paying for their spot is difficult.
Reserved parking for people with disabilities is relatively uncontroversial, but free on-street parking is under increased scrutiny as cash-strapped towns look for losses to recover.
Even more serious problems arise when the placards become considerably more common, or when they become easy to fake.
As the Hamilton Journal-News reported in August, the number of new handicapped placards issued per year in Ohio rose from 247,242 per year in 2006 to 300,749 in 2011, far faster than the rate of population growth in that state – indeed, the chair of the Governor’s Council on People with Disabilities remarks, “…there are a lot of doctors that hand them out like candy.” And Ohio isn’t the only place that’s been seeing growth – California issues over three times as many placards per 100 residents today in 2012 as it did in 1990.
There’s a strong incentive to try to gain access to free parking if anyone expects be spending much on it, and most people will find it better in the long-term to find legal means to gain access to disabled placards than simply parking in disabled parking spots without a placard.
The problems with disabled placards are many – they’re hard to verify, easy to fake, and it’s risky simply to accost a stranger who looks like they may not actually have a disability; indeed, it’s illegal to ask what a motorist’s disability is (via myparkingsign.com)
As Michael Manville of UCLA and Jonathan Williams of Fehr and Peers Associates concluded in their paper “The Price Doesn’t Matter if You Don’t Have to Pay,” even if there wasn’t any fraud going on, Los Angeles has six times as many disabled placards as it has paid parking meters, so either way, the public costs of allowing placarded vehicles to park for free is rising steadily, even assuming all the placards are legitimate.
That doesn’t mean that cities couldn’t recoup huge amounts by cracking down on fakers and placard thieves. Unfortunately, enforcing the placards has proved too much for most police departments, because in order to verify the status of the placard holder, they have to wait until car owners come back to their cars and make dangerous assumptions about the driver’s disability. It’s a liability stew that no one wants to get into.
As Manville and Williams observe, in congestion pricing systems, “Assuming some fraud does exist, the difficulty of enforcement suggests that the best option is to change the law itself. Eliminating the payment exemption for placard holders would eliminate the demand for placards by all but people with legitimately [sic] disabilities.”
Is this likely to happen? Creating a two-tier system like the one Michigan has adopted and Chicago has proposed – in which doctors have to distinguish between those deserving free parking and those who just need easy access – may only increase pressure on doctors to push people toward the tier that benefits their patients most. We already have a two-tier system; it hasn’t helped.
Simply eliminating free parking for people with placards entirely may be contrary to the ADA in some cases; it’s definitely a political nightmare. (Imagine the headlines: “Mayor Scrooge sticks disabled with $10 million parking bill…”)
As costly and irritating as it may be, finding new enforcement methods that weed out the undeserving may be the most workable answer, long-term.