Rethinking the parking needs of people with disabilities

By Bill Holloway
Disabled drivers clearly need access to parking spaces near their destinations but do they also need to park for free? A recent article by Michael Manville and Jonathan Williams in the University of California Transportation Center magazine Access argues that policies allowing disabled permit holders to park for free and for unlimited time in metered parking spaces create a number of problems without generating significant benefits for disabled people.
Free unlimited parking at metered spaces for disabled parking permit holders leads to rampant fraudulent use by able-bodied drivers, creates market inefficiency, and doesn’t benefit the intended population. The problem of abuse has become so bad that San Francisco is considering doing away with free parking for permit holders.
First, because disabled permits are relatively easy to get and offer such valuable benefits, there is a strong incentive for non-disabled people to use disabled placards illegally—police stakeouts in Alexandria, VA in 2010 found that 90 percent of disabled credentials were being used illegally.
Second, allowing so many metered spaces to be occupied by non-paying vehicles, which often take up over half of all occupied spaces, makes parking harder to find, generates increased traffic as drivers search for parking, and leads cities to force developers to supply off-street parking. While cars displaying disabled placards only account for about half of total unpaid occupied spaces—failed parking meters, expired meters, and exempt government vehicles make up the rest—sometimes they can make up a much larger portion. Researchers observing the meters on one block of Flower Street, in L.A.’s Financial District, where the meters charge $4 per hour, found that for several hours in the middle of the day every single space was occupied by vehicles displaying disabled permits. Throughout the day, vehicles with disabled placards occupied 80 percent of the block’s total meter time, effectively lowering the city’s average revenue per space from $4 to just 28 cents per hour.
Finally, the policy of allowing disabled permit holders to park for free is offering a financial benefit to many people who don’t need it. Only one-fifth of people with disabilities are below the poverty line and many of those who are both poor and disabled are either unable to afford a vehicle or unable to drive.
Ending the policy of free unlimited parking at meters for those with disabled placards would dramatically increase revenues and may prove to be an overall benefit to drivers, disabled and not, who would be more able to find a space near their destination. See the article in Access for a great discussion of the issue.
Bill Holloway is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.