Disabled Parking Placards:
The Third Rail of California Street Parking Reform

The ultimate taboo subject of California transportation policy is the well-intentioned but financially devastating impact of free disabled parking. Anyone cruising for street parking knows that one significant factor in availability is the law that vehicles with disabled tags can park virtually anywhere, all day, for free. And they do, block after block, in downtowns across the state. Although recent concern has been focused on the problem of illegal placards, that does not address the impact of the approximately 2.3 million California drivers with a legitimate one.

Previous California laws facilitated access for disabled drivers in designated zones, but the crucial change took place in 1972 when it was adjusted to allow free parking at any public parking spot. Why? According to UCLA researcher Jonathan Andrew Williams, the sponsor of the bill (District 5 Democratic Assemblymember John Dunlap) put it forward to address the challenges some disabled drivers experienced in feeding parking meters. The purpose was physical ability to handle coins, not an entitlement. There is no evidence that disabled drivers are any poorer than able-bodied ones, and their parking need not be subsidized. Yet, as a consequence of current law, the legitimate problem of disabled parking access has been overwhelmed by incentives for abuse - which hurts all drivers, disabled or not.

The current loss of municipal revenue and general citizen parking require revisiting existing law. Unfortunately, the subject has been avoided because of perceived political fallout. Hard data about the costs and consequences of free disabled parking have only recently being gathered and solutions suggested. The SFMTA has taken great leadership in proposing alternatives, now politicians need to show leadership of their own.

New technologies and systems make it possible to pay for parking with the tap of a credit card or a call from a phone. Sane public transportation policy requires changes to California Vehicle Code (CVC) Section 22511.5.

Lincoln Cushing, Berkeley

NEW - See AB 2602 below

Some resources:

DMV law and policies

California Vehicle Code (CVC) Section 22511.5 Disabled Parking Authorized Parking Zones

Disabled Person Parking Placard or License Plates
"Temporary parking placard for temporary disabilities. Valid for up to 180 days (six months) or the date noted by your qualifying licensed medical professional on the application, whichever timeframe is less and cannot be renewed more than six times consecutively."

Government documents

Assembly Bill 2602

This is most significant effort to reform disabled parking abuse since 1972.
Introduced by California State Assembly Member Mike Gatto (D-Los Angeles), the amended version of February 19, 2016 seeks to dramatically change the application process, the renewal process, and most importantly, opens the door for municipalities to supersede state law regarding unlimited free parking. Here's the relevant portion of the bill:

A local authority may require a disabled person or disabled veteran to pay parking meter fees, and may prohibit a disabled person or disabled veteran from parking for a period that exceeds the length of time permitted for that parking zone, pursuant to an ordinance or resolution adopted by the local authority at an open meeting, if all of the following requirements
are satisfied: 
 (1) The local authority performs a self-assessment of its compliance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (42 U.S.C. Sec. 12101 et seq.) with regard to its provision of parking spaces that are accessible to disabled persons. 
 (2) The assessment is made publicly available on an Internet Web site at least 30 days prior to the meeting to discuss the proposed ordinance or resolution. 
 (3) The public is provided with an opportunity to comment on the assessment and proposed ordinance or resolution at the meeting.
 (4) The local authority posts signs indicating that a person displaying a special license plate or placard is required to pay parking meter fees and is prohibited from parking for a period that exceeds the permitted length of time. 
 (5) The local authority makes all reasonable accommodations, including the provision of free parking for individuals who, by virtue of their disability, are unable to insert payment into a parking meter. 

"SFpark: Pilot Project Evaluation" SFMTA, 2014

From the section on disabled parking placards:
"During the test of real-time directed enforcement in Fisherman’s Wharf in 2013, at least 48% of spaces occupied but not paid were cars displaying placards."

"Accessible Parking Policy Advisory Committee Recommendations Report"
Updated January 7, 2014, produced by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency
Full report available here.
Also see earlier report, also with excellent research and analysis:
"Accessible Parking Policy Advisory Committee Policy options evaluation February 19, 2013" link here.

This is significant. The SFMTA's Accessible Parking Policy Advisory Committee spent two months looking at the accessible parking practices in eleven North American cities, and struggled with understanding the scope of the problem in San Francisco and proposing solutions.
Among their findings:

"San Francisco now has twice as many disabled parking placards as metered spaces..."

"A 2008 SFMTA survey found that 45 percent of parking meters were occupied by cars displaying placards in the downtown study area. Of the vehicles using placards, 57 percent were registered outside of San Francisco."

"...Only 16 percent of people with disabilities are both low income and have a vehicle available in their households, and two percent of low- income people with disabilities commute by automobile."

Research papers

"The Price Doesn’t Matter if You Don’t Have to Pay: Legal Exemption as an Obstacle to Market-Priced Parking"
Michael Manville, Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies, Institute of Transportation Studies, Department of Urban Planning, UCLA, 2011
"[This paper focuses] on legal nonpayment, and show that almost 40 percent of vehicles at meters [in Los Angeles] are both not paying and not breaking any laws. The majority of nonpayment comes from vehicles displaying disabled credentials."

"Meter payment exemption for disabled placard holders as a barrier to managing curb parking"
Thesis submitted in partial satisfaction of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in Urban Planning
Jonathan Andrew Williams, UCLA, 2010
"Aside from good intentions, however, it is not at all clear how the [disabled parking] policy is providing a needed benefit."


"Solving Disability Placard Abuse, Is There a Technological Solution?"
by Teresa Favuzzi, undated (2016), article for California Foundation for Independent Living Centers

"Whether we like it or not, the fact that placard users are not required to pay for parking has incentivized widespread fraud and abuse, making it extremely difficult for legitimate placard users to park while at the same time busting city budgets."
However, this position paper persists in the tired analysis of blaming the problem on "abuse," and states that "Cities must be able to capture meter revenue from the full able-bodied parking public."

"Bill to Eliminate Free Parking Could Help Disabled People Find a Spot"
StreetBlog California, April 14, 2016
The bill is one among several previous efforts to deal with cars that sport disabled parking placards taking up a high percentage—sometimes all—of the street parking spaces in high-demand areas.

"Will disabled placard abuse undermine Sacramento city parking plan?"
The Sacramento Bee, March 26, 2016
“Unlimited use of the placards is going to blow this out of the water,” Councilman Larry Carr predicted Tuesday. “The system will not work if people can use those placards and park anywhere at a meter all day and all night.”

"Oakland Has the Worst Two-Wheel Parking, By Far," Letter to editor, East Bay Express, 9/16/2015:

I was happy to see a letter about Oakland's lack of motorcycle/scooter parking. I commute to this fair city every work day on a motorcycle. Compared to other neighboring cities such as Berkeley or San Francisco, Oakland has the worst two-wheel parking, by far. Instead of encouraging these compact and fuel-efficient vehicles, Oakland makes it impossible to park them legally.

Urban motorcycle parking involves a gray area of law and enforcement. Under most circumstances, one does not get a ticket for simply violating a time restriction when parked between cars if the adjacent meters are paid. This could charitably be considered a progressive policy of encouraging infill parking. But with the rampant proliferation of disabled placards, almost no downtown meters are paid for, so tickets go to the only target — motorcycles. And I've seen scores of curbs that were too small for car parking, previously full of bikes, now painted red.

It's time for Oakland to step up and help, not persecute, motorcycles and scooters.

-Lincoln Cushing, Berkeley

"California DMV cracks down on misuse of disability parking placards," LA Times, 7/29/2015
Article focus is on "abuse," but includes this observation:
"It brings to mind there are doctors out there who might be over-prescribing," said R. Michael Paravagna, a member of the Commission on Disability Access. "Maybe they are handing them out like candy."

"Downtown Drivers Abusing Handicap Placards for Free Parking," NBC 7 San Diego, 5/18/2015
In 2013 to 2014, the California DMV issued 500 citations for disabled placard fraud statewide.
Right now, over 3 million California drivers have permanent or temporary disabled placards or disabled license plates.

"States Cracking Down On Accessible Parking Abuse," Disability Scoop, 11/17/2014
Cornell University’s Manville said that while police stake-outs and sweeps may work well in the short term, there’s little evidence that they’re effective in the long run, so that abuses will continue as long as the parking remains free.

"Pay to park would help, not harm, disabled," C.W. Nevius column, S.F. Chronicle, 11/22/2014
Online headline: "How paying to park could help disabled and curb placard abuse"

"Bob Planthold, who is disabled, says when he mentions the pay-to-park plan, the reaction is immediate. “They say, 'What kind of Scrooge are you?’” he said. And yet, if they can get everyone to calm down and listen, the proponents think they can make a convincing argument. They know that because it worked with a group of determined skeptics — themselves."

"Misuse of disabled placards costly for S.F., other drivers," Matier & Ross column, S.F. Chronicle, 11/17/2014
"The use and abuse of disabled parking placards in San Francisco cost the city $22.7 million in lost meter money last year, a new report shows...Last year, San Francisco’s transportation agency floated the idea of charging placard holders for parking. It was quietly deep-sixed by the city’s own lawmakers in Sacramento after activists for the disabled objected."

"Blocked out" - SF Chronicle editorial supporting reiew of disabled parking laws, August 20, 2014
"Everyone is heading in the right direction except for San Francisco's state legislators."

"How bid to have the disabled pay parking meters expired," Matier & Ross column, S.F. Chronicle August 18, 2014
(online title: "S.F. parking fee plan for disabled goes nowhere")
Excellent critique of politicians caving to special interests.
"Convinced there's widespread abuse of disabled parking placards, San Francisco's Municipal Transportation Agency passed a series of recommendations to crack down on the problem - only to have them deep-sixed by the city's own lawmakers in Sacramento."

"3 in S.F. nabbed in crackdown on parking placards"
Matier & Ross, S.F. Chronicle July 15, 2014

"Our estimates are that we are losing more than $20 million a year from unpaid parking as a result of disabled placards." - S.F. Parking and Traffic spokesman Paul Rose

"They're dead, yet they still get free parking" (note 7/20/2011 similar article below)
C.W. Nevius, S.F. Chronicle, June 24, 2014

"Stunning turn toward charging for disabled parking"
C.W. Nevius, S.F. Chronicle, June 21, 2014

"Some of us were adamant in the beginning that we needed to do rigorous enforcement," Planthold said. "I've changed my mind. Even Carla Johnson, the current head of the mayor's office on disability, came in thinking enforcement. All of us, advocates and disabled, changed our minds." The thinking is simple. Removing free parking means there is no reason to fake a disability.

Letter to the editor, S.F. Chronicle, June 15, 2014

My Sunday Insight section must have been missing a page - two articles on the challenges of parking and not one mention of the impact of free disabled parking. We must get past the fantasy that it's a problem of illegal placards; even the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency concedes that San Francisco now has twice as many disabled parking placards as metered spaces. A 2008 survey found that 45 percent of parking meters were occupied by cars displaying placards in the downtown study area; 57 percent of those were registered outside of San Francisco.

This is a well-intentioned public policy run amok, and an equitable solution must be found.

-Lincoln Cushing, Berkeley

Letter to East Bay Express, May 2013

Oakland officials calculated the city's annual cost at $150,000 – it’s way low. Try this math: meters are $2 an hour, times 8 hours, times a conservative 250 work days – that alone adds up to $4,000 for just one spot. Surely Oakland can’t believe that fewer than 38 spaces are going for free! And that does not include revenue from tickets for parking longer than two hours. Of course, real data would be very helpful, but city and parking agencies are reluctant to provide that information.

Lincoln Cushing, Berkeley

"Privilege expiring?"

John Wildermuth, San Francisco Chronicle, May 18, 2013
Disabled placard shouldn't provide unlimited free time, panel says - but also recommends increasing blue spaces.

"Disabled parking rule change recommended"

John Wildermuth, San Francisco Chronicle, May 17, 2013

The big take aways:

"We originally thought increased enforcement would solve the problem," said Ed Reiskin, the city's transportation director and co-chair of the committee.

"The idea of charging didn't feel right," said Jessie Lorenz, executive director of the Independent Living Resource Center San Francisco, who also was on the committee. But she changed her mind after looking at evidence from around the country.

"Cities tightening grip on disabled parking placards"
USA Today, September 6, 2013

"Do Disabled Motorists Need Free Parking?"
Joaquin Palomino, East Bay Express, May 1, 2013

"The Case for Eliminating Disabled Parking Placards"
Eric Jaffe, The Atlantic Cities, August 30, 2012

"Placards can bring a curbside surprise - State DMV cracks down on fraudulent use of disabled parking passes."
Martha Groves, LA Times, May 22, 2011

"California DMV keeps sending out disabled placards - to people who are dead."
Madeleine Morganstern, The Blaze, July 20, 2011

"Disabled parking placards in downtown Oakland; are they legit?"
Anrica Deb, Oakland North, 8/20/2010
This was the first published article in Northern California that addressed the underlying problem rather than focusing on illegal abuse.

Letter to the editor, SF Chronicle, March 11, 2009:

Regarding "Feed the hungrier meter" (editorial, March 7): The smartest meters in the world will not change the fact that more and more urban drivers are parking all day for free. The proliferation of disabled parking placards, both legitimate and illegal, have decimated city revenue.

Devices such as FasTrak and cell phones can make paying easy and eliminate the burden of regularly feeding a meter. In this period where everyone needs to share the load, it's time to review the law regarding free disabled parking.

-Lincoln Cushing, Berkeley

"More drivers acquiring disabled parking placards - The DMV issues millions of special permits."
Ralph Vartabedian, LA Times, June 20, 2007

"Disabled placards proliferate as more qualify for privilege, more seem to abuse system."
Rachel Gordon, S.F. Chronicle, March 26, 2007

"90,000 handicap cards -- 4 per S.F. parking meter."
Charlie Goodyear, S.F. Chronicle, January 26, 2007

return to Docs Populi : page first posted 1/6/2013 | updated 4/22/2021