Disabled Parking Policy Ripe for Reform

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission has included management of disabled parking spaces and permits as part of its broader goal of supporting state parking reform this year.


It’s a step that’s stirring greater discussion among disability advocates and local transit agencies who are exploring state law changes to give cities greater flexibility to manage disabled parking policy. One change being debated is having the disabled pay for their parking spaces.


MTC’s decision to include parking reform on its legislative agenda builds on efforts started by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority, which has been looking into the needs of the Bay Area’s disabled community since 2009.


“The way we manage disabled parking in the Bay Area is not working,” said Jay Primus, manager of SFpark, SFMTA’s real-time parking management project.


It can be difficult for disabled drivers to find unoccupied disabled spaces, especially in busy downtown areas of Oakland and San Francisco where disabled placard fraud is common. It’s also hard in many neighborhoods to find disabled parking in areas close to curb cuts with meters that are at reachable heights, among other access and time-limit issues.


Vetting these issues will require ongoing public engagement with the disabled community to address accessibility challenges, sources said. It’s also going to entail a hard look at placard supply and demand, as well as greater enforcement on the street.


“It’s about improving access, making it convenient so [disabled drivers] can park close, and having a respectful approach that treats people equally,” Primus said.


SFMTA is “still determining next steps,” to addressing parking policy, Primus said.


“We’re going to work with [SFMTA] and support them and address the subject,” added Rebecca Long, legislative analyst at MTC.


The potential for change comes at a time when more U.S. cities are re-thinking disabled parking laws. Some cities such as Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Arlington, Va., St. Louis, and Raleigh, N.C. have eliminated free disabled parking.


Should California choose that route, state law changes would be necessary. As it stands now, the law guarantees free and unlimited parking for anyone with a placard.


However, there is growing concern about fraudulent or improper use of placards — activities that steal revenue from cash-strapped cities.


“You have a situation where you have a state law that costs local governments money,” said Michael Manville, a Cornell University professor who researched parking pricing while teaching at the University of California, Los Angeles.


Placard cheaters also take spaces away from disabled drivers in preferred locations. This includes spaces on the street, as well as public and private parking lots.


“From our perspective, the issue of the cost for parking is not a civil rights issue. Access is the civil rights issue,” said Susan Henderson, executive director at the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund.


Generally, placard abuse data is hard to come by. That’s mainly because it can be difficult to spot and enforce. Consider that heart conditions, for example, aren’t visible disabilities.


However, population and DMV placard statistics — while not an apples-to-apples comparison — show the potential for a discrepancy among placards in legitimate circulation. About 6.4 percent of the city’s 766,471 San Francisco residents have ambulatory difficulty, or conditions that make it difficult to walk or move, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2010 American Community Survey. Yet 7 percent carry a permanent or temporary disabled placard, based on 2011 Department of Motor Vehicle statistics showing 53,470 total tags issued.


“Based on these statistics, there could be over 4,000 placards in circulation that are being used fraudulently, about 8 percent of the total placards out there,” said MTC’s Long, who also cautioned the margin of error in the ACS statistics is “too large to draw any firm conclusions.”


But almost every source the Monitor spoke with relayed a placard abuse anecdote, mainly about individuals who share tags with family members who aren’t disabled. In recent years, TV news crews also have reported abuse in cities like Oakland after conducting their own sting operations.


It’s too early to tell whether the use of pricing would discourage fraud in the Bay Area — although various ideas are surfacing to support a pricing policy. One suggestion is to offer subsidies for disabled drivers.


“If everyone were to pay for [parking], my research suggests a substantial increase in parking revenue that would more than pay for the subsidy,” said Dan Chatman, assistant professor of city and regional planning at the University of California, Berkeley.


But overall, pricing is a “tricky” issue that “could have a hard time passing until there is actual equivalent access for folks with disabilities,” said Jessie Lorenz, executive director at the Independent Living Resource Center.