The end of free disabled parking?

| July 24, 2013

Known (and satirized) for its eco-friendly, left-leaning politics, Portland, OR, may have recently hardened its warm, fuzzy public image. Last week an editorial in the local paper suggested that those with accessible parking permits should pay for on-street parking—just like everyone else. Does this spell the end of free disabled parking?

Currently, Portland, like many cities nationwide, allows cars displaying disability-parking permits to park at metered spots for free. But a growing number of public entities—the cities of Oakland and Seattle, as well as the states of New Jersey, Hawaii, and Michigan among them—are beginning to question the wisdom of that public policy.

accessibility sign seen from the bottom

Accessible parking may sound like a gimme for most popular cause ever. Economists hate it, though – it’s easy to pretend to have a disability to get out of feeding the meter, and it’s a tough crime to detect. From suzyq212.

Chief among their concerns is the rampant abuse of disabled parking placards. In Seattle, police estimate that 60 percent of disabled parking permits in circulation are fraudulent; in cities that have spent more time investigating the matter, rates are as high as 90 percent.

Such figures are alarming because they translate into lost revenue for the public sector, which continues to be a drag on the otherwise nicely recovering national economy. Milwaukee, for instance, estimates that it loses $400,000 yearly to disability-parking permit abuse, while San Francisco believes that it loses $1 million annually.

Disabled parking abusers identified

Abusers tend to be relatives of disabled people who’ve died or, according to surveillance by the Detroit Free Press, able-bodied motorists who park at handicapped spots so that they can pop into stores to run quick errands. Others go to greater lengths to illegally obtain another person’s valid permit.

Of course, abusers are guilty of committing fraud, but others place the blame elsewhere: on the physicians who certify the disability in the first place. Many states require applicants for disability-parking permits to receive certification from a medical professional who must approve the applicant for one or more of a list of qualifying disabilities. Once the permits are approved, renewal may or may not require recertification.

In both cases, critics say the medical community is too lax. “Doctors are signing off on people who really shouldn’t be getting [permits],” Michael Harris, executive director of Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America, told the Detroit Free Press a year ago.

For some, he said, “It’s a financial thing. They don’t want to lose the patient.”

Dr. Ali Moinn, a dermatologist and former president of the Wayne County Medical Society of Southeast Michigan, told the Detroit Free Press that the problem isn’t always financial. “It’s like doing the patient a favor,” he said. “Sometimes saying ‘no’ is not as easy as it seems.”

Both he and Harris offered solutions that other states might consider: track the doctors who certify patients’ disability or don’t allow physicians to write permits for themselves, their relatives, or friends.

The light hand of the law

truck with accessibility sign stuck in its grille

Legislators whose districts rely on parking meters for revenue are taking a closer look at how easy their programs are to defraud, and concluding that major reform is necessary. From shalf.

“There are no repercussions for physicians,” observed Erica Coulston, who uses a wheelchair and is cofounder of Walk the Line to Spinal Cord Injury Recovery, speaking to the Detroit Free Press. “They should be trusted to take these placards very seriously and assign them accordingly. It’s just gotten out of hand.”

Whether it’s tracking abuse within the medical community or on the streets, part of the problem for the public sector lies in enforcement. In Seattle, the parking enforcement unit responsible for tracking placard abuse was recently disbanded, and in some parts of Florida, counties rely on volunteers to the sheriff’s office to write citations for the abuse.

Enforcement issues can be addressed another way, say policy experts: get rid of the financial incentive. In Raleigh, NC, for example, disability-parking permit holders used to be able to park for free, but in 2010, the city began to charge them for parking in select areas downtown. The policy change was prompted by merchants who complained that their customers couldn’t find on-street parking.

Once the change was made, cars with placards almost disappeared from those areas, Gordon Dash, Raleigh’s parking administrator, told the Portland Tribune earlier this year. “That pretty much tells me these were not people who rightfully owned those placards,” he said.

A new solution

Transit experts Michael Manville and Jonathan Williams, coauthors of an influential study that looked at legal exemptions to parking regulations versus market-priced parking, say that the truly disabled suffer the most from the abuse. They’re less likely to find parking spots due to the number taken up by illegal users.

Paying for parking will help them, Manville says. It doesn’t always follow that the disabled are impoverished, and he and Williams argue that the laws, as currently construed, fail to help those with the most serious disabilities (many of whom can’t drive anyway) and those with moderate disabilities but who are low-income. Put another way, they can drive but can’t afford a car.

Manville and Williams suggest that the new revenue stream could instead go towards improving programs, such as paratransit service, that are designed to benefit the neediest group.

While a disability doesn’t always confer low income, the statistics indicate that it often causes severe financial hardship. According to the Disability Funders Network, more than 65 percent of working-age adults with disabilities are unemployed. Of that group, 30 percent earn an income below the poverty level.

Policymakers will have to balance such numbers with the figures on the public ledger and to continue to examine ways that the abuse of disability-parking permits can be mitigated.

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Category: Enforcement, Handicapped parking, Parking management

About the Author ()

Cielo Lutino is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn, NY. She has written for such publications as the L Magazine and Portland Monthly, and her literary nonfiction has appeared in journals such as the Los Angeles Review and Cold Mountain Review.
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