In many major cities across the United States, the abuse of disabled parking placards is at least a minor problem. Government officials and reporters in Boston [PDF], Chicago, Washington, D.C., New York, and Philadelphia have called attention to the practice in the recent (to semi-recent) past. The situation is particularly bad in Los Angeles: a 2010 investigation by the local NBC news team found disabled passes in 80 percent of parked cars in a 10-block radius downtown. Voter ID fraud may or may not exist, but disabled placard fraud sure does.
The problem seems harmless enough, but in fact it's quite costly for just about everyone except the perpetrators. For starters, as the "prophet of parking" Donald Shoup has shown, cruising for street spaces creates an enormous amount of urban congestion — not to mention an enormous amount of local air pollution. At a broad level the practice weakens all government programs by reducing city revenue. At an individual level it makes finding a parking spot harder for the actual disabled people that placards intend to help.
If a city has a pricing program for parking, like Los Angeles or San Francisco, the costs are even greater. Such programs raise the price of parking until a certain level of vacancy (often 15 percent) is present at any given moment. But disabled placards usually allow drivers to park for free for an unlimited amount of time. Many do just that: a 2009 meter survey in Los Angeles found that the 5 percent of cars with disabled placards used 17 percent of all available time. When placard abuse meets priced parking, the results are flawed space counts and artificially high rates for everyone.
Attempting to solve the problem can be costly, too. Enforcement at the street level would require a considerable number of parking officials whose job is to watch drivers get out of their cars and decide if they are actually disabled. That's a lot of manpower for what's still ultimately a judgment call. Regulation at the distribution level is even less feasible: a wide variety of professionals (from physicians to chiropractors to midwives) have the power to grant passes for a wide variety of conditions (from serious long-term disabilities to sprained ankles to pregnancy).
For these reasons and more, two researchers propose a very simple solution to the problems caused by disabled placards: eliminate them.
Michael Manville of Cornell and Jonathan Williams of Fehr & Peers Transportation Consultants in Seattle, Washington, present their case in the September issue of the Journal of Planning Education and Research. They argue that disabled placards invite fraud, compromise priced-parking programs, and also fail to help the neediest members of the disabled community. As a result, they conclude that "disabled payment exemptions are poorly targeted interventions, and that better ways exist to help people with disabilities."
Manville and Williams illustrate their point by studying legal non-payment of parking in Los Angeles. From March to June 2010 the researchers and their assistants observed roughly 5,000 meters in 13 parking zones across the city. They found that of the three main types of legal non-payment — meter failures, use of government credentials, and use of disabled placards — the latter was far and away the most pervasive.
All told, disabled placards accounted for half of all legal parking non-payment; government credentials made up 6 to 14 percent, meter failure, 19 to 50 percent, depending on the neighborhood. Vehicles with disabled placards occupied more than a quarter of all meters surveyed (which, as a side note, suggests the existence of fraud alone, since only 20 percent of Los Angeles County reports a disability). They also consumed the most unpaid time: whereas the average vehicle parked for roughly half an hour, the average disabled placard vehicle parked for 3 hours and 49 minutes.
The effect on potential revenue for Los Angeles was striking. Across the city, meters documented by Manville and Williams collected anywhere from 77 percent of their potential revenue down to just 4 percent. In all parking zones except one (with numerous broken meters) the loss came primarily from disabled placard use, and to a lesser extent government credentials. On one street whose spaces were 95 percent occupied, the meters that charged $4 an hour brought in an average of 28 cents.
So clearly Los Angeles has a disabled placard problem, and other cities likely share it. But what to do about it? Manville and Williams suggest that cities do away with placards entirely — or, at the very least, eliminate the payment exemptions attached to them. (They recognize that people with disabilities often take longer to perform tasks and therefore may need the time exemption.)
The idea may sound unsympathetic, but the researchers don't intend it that way. On the contrary, they argue that disabled placards, as presently conceived, don't help those with the most serious disabilities (who can't drive anyway) nor those with moderate disabilities but low income (who can drive but can't afford a car). Instead they propose using the increased parking revenue that will come from eliminating placards to improve programs, such as paratransit service, designed to benefit this neediest group. They conclude:
Laws that grant free parking to people with disabilities help neither most people with disabilities nor those with the most severe disabilities. These laws also help neither most of the poor nor the poorest. More importantly, the externalities of this clumsy subsidy threaten to undermine a transportation reform that could deliver large benefits to all citizens.