Editorial: L.A. Parking Reform Can Start With Handicap Placard Reform

If parking pricing strategies are going to work for Los Angeles, the city will need to tackle disabled placard reform, too. Photo: Tony Webster/Wikimedia
If parking pricing strategies are going to work for Los Angeles, the city will need to tackle disabled placard reform, too. Photo: Tony Webster/Wikimedia

Lately, there is a lot of attention directed toward reforming parking in Los Angeles. Various solutions are in stages of implementation and discussion.

The city of Los Angeles has pioneered a relatively sophisticated curb-parking pricing program called ExpressPark. ExpressPark uses technology and, mostly, variable pricing to respond to curb parking demand.

One of the louder voices in the recent parking debate is the Los Angeles Parking Freedom Initiative. Their parking reform platform includes various tweaks to L.A.’s parking systems, from sign legibility to street sweeping. LAPFI states that the city first needs to address the issue of “basic fairness” meaning “parking fines are just too high.” This has translated to a push for reducing parking violation charges from their current average of $67 to only $23.

But what if there were a group of law-breakers who were immune to parking meter costs and never received violations? None of these projects would impact those scofflaws.

There, of course, are: drivers who abuse disabled placards.

Disabled placards are relatively easy to obtain and allow unlimited free parking at meters. Here is how parking expert Don Shoup describes L.A.’s handicapped placard scofflaws, from a 2011 interview with SBLA:

The main problem we already have in L.A. is the widespread abuse of handicapped placards.  A disabled placard in California is like a “free parking” pass for the entire state.  One of our students just finished his Masters thesis on placard abuse in downtown.  He surveyed one block on Flower Street where there are 14 metered parking spaces.  Most of the spaces were filled most of the time with cars that had disabled placards.  For five hours of the day, all fourteen spaces were occupied by cars with disabled placards.

Although the meter rate was $4 an hour, the meters earned only 32¢ an hour in collections because most of the time the meters were occupied by cars that paid nothing.

The L.A. Weekly reported on a 2013 DMV placard-enforcement operation that resulted in charges against 241 Southern California drivers. Enforcement, and sting operations in general, appears to have little in the way of lasting effects.

According to Shoup, City Lab, and Better Institutions, the way to truly end widespread placard abuse is to stop giving unlimited free parking to all placard holders. Other cities and states are already pioneering this solution.

As of July 1st, 2014, the city of Portland, Oregon, ended free parking for disabled drivers. The new law allows exceptions for severely disabled drivers, including actual wheelchair users, to continue to park for free. Drivers with basic disabled placards are still allowed to park for triple the posted time limit, but they must pay.

This Portland Tribune article tells the night-and-day difference:

Parking code enforcement officer Becky Rhodes observed first hand the change the new policy was having on the supply of spaces. On Wednesday, July 2, Rhodes said, she walked the east side of Southwest Fourth Avenue between Main and Salmon streets and saw something she’s never seen before — open curbside parking. And the few cars that were parked on the street did not display disabled placards.

“Normally that block, there might have been one space with no permit,” Rhodes said.

Rhodes and her fellow enforcement officers gave out 24 warnings on Tuesday, July 1, the first day of the new policy, and 100 on Wednesday, July 2.

Mid-morning Thursday, July 3, Rhodes was walking north on Fourth Avenue when she turned the corner to head east and stopped in her tracks as she looked down Taylor.

“Wow, there are all these open spaces,” Rhodes remarked. Indeed, a block that was always full of parked cars at that time of day was nearly deserted. The south side of Taylor Street had six open spaces and only two parked cars. Cars with disabled placards had almost completely disappeared from blocks they traditionally filled. 

Rhodes wasn’t alone in her observation. “Other parking officers have been coming in and saying they do not recognize their beat,” said Portland Bureau of Transportation spokeswoman Diane Dulken.

After 30 minutes of patrol, Rhodes had come across only four cars parked with disabled placards. Two displayed parking stubs as the new rules require. One had a wheelchair placard that indicated the driver is wheelchair-bound and thus exempt from the new rules.

The Portland Tribune article goes on to describe how the state of Michigan also abolished free handicap placard parking. Michigan placard applications went from 500,000 down to 10,000 that year.

This City Lab article responds to a concern that reforming handicap parking policies might do harm to actual disabled people.

[Researchers Michael Manville and Jonathan Williams ] 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.

Whether parking meter violations cost $23 or $230, it is unlikely to make a significant difference if handicap placard scofflaws continue to be completely immune to meter fees and violation costs. Placard abusers take up spaces, making finding a space difficult for honest drivers who are willing to pay. The lack of availability of metered parking hurts nearby businesses. Freeing up these spaces for paying customers will increase revenue for the city of Los Angeles, too.

Ending placard abuse will free up metered parking in hard-to-park areas like Westwood and Downtown Los Angeles. The city should end free disabled parking, but, as Portland and Michigan have already done, make sure that any policy change includes provisions to protect the mobility of the severely disabled.

Added Note: Apparently there will need to be reform at the state level for interested California cities to change the way they handle disabled parking. See this additional handicap placard issue coverage at Streetsblog San Francisco.

(Addendum: Lastly, here are a few worthwhile recent parking articles I’d like to acknowledge for helping shape this editorial. Without these sources to lean on, I wouldn’t have any parking insights to pass along to SBLA readers:

Thanks to everyone working to make parking reform work for all Angelinos.) 

  • traal

    “Indeed, a block that was always full of parked cars at that time of day was nearly deserted.”

    Having a block of parking be completely full is a problem, but so is a block that’s nearly deserted.

  • AlecMitchell

    Indeed, but it’s difficult to determine the correct price for parking until you clear out freeloaders. If the block is deserted, that’s a sign the meter cost should be lowered, but there may have been no way to know that until the policy was changed. The above anecdote seems to imply that eliminating disabled placard abuse might lead to lower meter rates in some areas.

  • Joe Linton

    Also – the empty street was just after the law went into effect. I expect that, over time, some drivers will the newly useable parking

  • Jeffrey Baker

    Meta comment: I feel like I only see these articles if I come to LA Streetsblog specifically. I’d like to see these excellent articles circulated on SF Streetsblog that I read daily.

  • MaxUtil

    This also goes directly to LAPFI’s complaints. I don’t buy their “fines aren’t fair!” argument. But if meters generated revenue the way they’re designed to, the city wouldn’t fall back onto tickets as much to build revenue. I’m all for more reasonable fines for someone who let’s a meter go over for 5 mintues if people are actually paying for the parking they use.

  • Very good point, that getting rid of free parking for most placard holders might actually benefit other drivers not just in terms of additional open space, but in lower parking rates as well.

    And yeah, to traal, you’d have to wait at least a few weeks for people to adjust before you could come to any conclusions about parking demand. These are probably spaces that have been 100% occupied all day long, for years, and frequent drivers to the area don’t even bother looking on those roads anymore. That takes time to adjust.

  • Jeff Jacobberger

    A couple of years ago, a spot survey in Westwood Village found that more than 40% of on-street metered spaces were occupied by cars with handicap placards, including a commercial van for an elevator repair company.

  • Jack

    Removing the free parking at meters benefit will help prevent fraud at meters. However, it will do nothing to prevent the same fraud that occurs in free public parking lots everywhere. The entire system needs to be overhauled. From the eligibility requirements, the application process, renewal process, penalties, to enforcement. The entire system today is mostly an honor system and it’s obviously not working as such.

  • Sam

    My favorite approach is in the Washington DC area. Throughout Arlington County, Virginia, every parking meter has a sign that says “ALL MAY PARK ALL MUST PAY.” Seems like the fairest approach for managing a scarce resource.


  • LA is actually reducing coverage of the ExpressPark program now. From a press release: “Due to low usage, LADOT will discontinue the Park Mobile pay-by-cell program at over 2/3 of the metered spaces in Downtown Los Angeles, effective March 31, 2014.”

  • Hey, very nice site. I came across this on Google, and I am stoked that I did. I will definitely be coming back here more often. Wish I could add to the conversation and bring a bit more to the table, but am just taking in as much info as I can at the moment.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Heavy Duty Wheelchair

    Keep Posting:)

  • Jason

    In DC, they botched the actual execution of it, but they tried to institute a program where certain specially-marked meters were reserved for people with handicap placards, but they still had to pay the standard meter rate. I think that’s a pretty good compromise: it keeps the parking open for those who need it, but doesn’t give away anything for free. (In fact, the part where you have to pay for it would seem likely to deter people from abusing having a handicap parking placard; and even if people still do, at least it still forces the spots to turn over every couple of hours.)

  • Jason

    The problem, basically, is nobody wants to touch reforming this because there’s going to be a lot of (correct) pushback from people about things like “just because I don’t look handicapped doesn’t mean that I’m not”.

    No politician wants to open themselves up to being painted as going after handicapped people.

  • neroden

    I do want to point out that handicapped placards are a very good thing. But they are not supposed to provide free parking.

    They are supposed to make it possible for people who can’t walk very far to park close to their destination. Period.

  • neroden

    The primary purpose of handicapped placards is to enable handicapped people to park close to their destination.

    Most days, my fiancee can’t walk 1000 feet. So if there’s a place she needs to go, she has to park closer than that or she *literally cannot get there*. She will have to simply cancel the appointment or shop somewhere else.

    This is why handicapped spaces have to be reserved in every block.

    But there’s no problem with *paying at the meter*.

  • Tom

    isnt it a shame that the city/state/federal has a program of giving out placards that prevent them from taxing certain citizens for leaving their belongings on public land. the governments need to make money to pay the meter readers and those that manage the public land. the parking tax should be paid by everybody, even those that do not park their cars. is it fair that just becaus someone has a disability that they should be exempt from paying their fair share of the beaurocracy that helps to ensure that only the wealthy have access to the premium public lands?

  • pankaj garg



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