Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific Standard, GOOD, The Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.
The placards harm transportation systems, the environment, and city coffers. And they don't really help those with disabilities.
There is no good way to ask this without sounding like a jerk, but here it is: Do disabled people really need free parking? Yes, they need convenient parking spaces. But cities all over the country have oddly conflated drivers in need of close curbside access with people too poor to pay for it. The two groups are not necessarily one and the same. Worse, free parking for the disabled invites all kinds of wildly offensive misuse. As a result, the policy is arguably bad for urban parking systems, definitely bad for city coffers, even bad for the environment.
The best evidence we've seen for this politically touchy case comes from some fascinating ongoing research out of the University of California Transportation Center, by Michael Manville and Jonathan Williams. We've written previously about their findings from several on-the-ground surveys of disabled placard use in Los Angeles, which were published in the Journal of Planning Education and Research. But they've since written a downright entertaining account of the study for a wider audience in ACCESS, the transportation center's magazine.
They argue, for starters, that free disabled parking threatens to foil the high-tech performance pricing systems now coming online in cities trying to manage parking demand in real time. It doesn't do much good to dynamically price parking if a large share of people pay nothing for it at all (cars with disabled placards typically can park for free in any metered spot). As Manville and Williams write in ACCESS:
A price system works only when people who don’t pay don’t get the service. Every day we rely almost unthinkingly on prices to allocate toasters, televisions, and gasoline, but this entire edifice would crumble if 20 percent of the population could take as much gasoline as they liked, whenever they liked, regardless of price.
The question, though, is whether or not there are really that many people doing this – either because they're actually disabled or faking it – to disrupt the parking supply. Anecdotal evidence is pretty common, as are nightly news stakeouts (Manville and Williams mention one CBS hidden-camera report filming people hanging their disabled parking placards outside of a fancy L.A. gym, and then "vigorously working out"). It's also evidently really easy to obtain these things in California. Even optometrists and chiropractors can certify people to get them.
To measure how pervasive this is, Manville and Williams actually sent observers out to count parking spots, disabled placards, and unpaid meters in 13 different neighborhoods across the city with varying parking rates. They surveyed about 5,000 meters, or 13 percent of the city's total, at multiple and different times of day. Out of 11,300 observations, 61 percent of the meters were occupied, but fewer than half of those cars had paid and 27 percent were showing disabled parking permits. The first chart at right shows the breakdown of all of the occupied spaces (in some cases, people did not pay because the meter was broken, or they had some other kind of government permit).
The second chart shows only the unpaid spaces that were occupied. Fully half of them contained cars using disabled placards. The larger issue, though, is that those drivers don't just pay nothing for the time they park; they park for longer, too. Nearly 40 percent of all of the meter-hours in the study were taken up by cars with disabled placards. They have no reason to leave. The observers watched one man park a car with a permit, load a bunch of boxes onto a dolly, push it down some stairs – and then leave his vehicle on the street for the next 10 hours.
Over the course of a single day in March of 2010, on a single block of Flower Street in L.A.'s financial district, the researchers also tracked every minute of meter occupancy and use, yielding this chart:
Cars with disabled placards ate up 80 percent of all of the meter time that day, and on a block where parking should cost $4 an hour. Instead, the city was effectively making 28 cents an hour.
Manville and Williams aren't arguing that we should abolish disabled parking all together. Rather, they argue that there's no good reason to make it free, and plenty of reasons not to. As they put it:
Redistributing income through placards makes sense if most people with disabilities have low incomes; if low-income people with disabilities regularly use parking meters; and if most people with disabled placards are disabled. There is good reason to doubt all of these statements.
Or, to make the case in even more relatable terms:
When a wealthy investment banker breaks his leg kitesurfing and winds up on crutches, it makes sense to let him park in a convenient spot. It doesn’t make sense to let him park everywhere for free.