By Charles R. “Charlie” Munn III, CPP
Customers make decisions on where to park based on the three “Ps” of parking: proximity, perks and price. An accessible parking space ticks all three boxes. It offers convenient and close access to the destination; a wide, comfortable space that is almost always available; and, often, it's free.
What is Placard Abuse?
A government-issued, accessible placard enables the holder's vehicle to utilize a space legally set aside for persons with disabilities.
However, a myriad of jurisdictions with wildly varying requirements, forms and authorization processes create a variety of accessible parking placards. There are no “standards” for placards. Where opportunity commingles with confusion, you'll find scammers.
Consequently, forging or altering a placard or fabricating the need for a placard by non-disabled persons is a booming enterprise.
During a spot check at the 2017 Los Angeles County Fair, police found nearly 20 percent of the placards in use were illegal. Also, legitimate placards become high-value targets for thieves.
The Parking Authority of Baltimore City, Md. (PABC) reported an average of 300 placards stolen per year from the vehicles of persons with disabilities before their new program, discussed further below, reduced that number to a handful.
Why Placard Abuse Should Matter to You
When unethical placard abusers compete for accessible spaces, they are victimizing persons with legitimate disabilities. True, accessible spaces have historically been underutilized in many facilities. But more recently, accessible space inventories are increasingly in demand.
Many jurisdictions provide free parking for vehicles bearing placards or are lenient with enforcement in deference to the disabled community. Some localities allow free, accessible parking merely because their existing meters and other equipment are non-ADA compliant.
Revenue losses can be substantial. UCLA professor Donald Shoup reported that a 2013 audit in San Francisco revealed free parking for placard bearers—required by state law—consumed an average of 20 percent of all parking spaces and costing the city $22.7 million in lost revenue.
There is a third concern that should rile the industry. An aging population and the growing trend of placard abuse could create a perfect storm that results in a legislative revisiting of accessibility laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Increasing the mandated number of spaces or requiring “free" parking for placard holders on a national level, similar to what is done statewide in locales like California, would drastically increase operating costs and/or reduce industry revenues.
What You Can Do to Fight Placard Abuse
1. Ally with Persons with Disabilities
Reach out to local stakeholders. Peter Little, executive director of PABC says, “We would be happy to share information about our program called ProjectSPACE, which the parking authority created in partnership with the Mayor’s Commission on Disabilities (MCOD).”
National groups like the Paralyzed Veterans of America have also strongly endorsed efforts to enforce accessible parking regulations to eliminate cheating.
2. Develop a Strategy to Fight Abuse
Working with community advocates, PABC began systematically creating well-marked, accessible, on-street parking featuring ADA-compliant meters and signage. Its award-winning program has been nationally touted.
3. Eliminate the Economic Incentive to Cheat
Arlington, Va. instituted its “All May Park, All Must Pay” system in 1998, eliminating free parking for placard-bearing vehicles. Other cities have followed suit, such Baltimore and Portland, Ore.
According to the October 30, 2014 issue of The Oregonian newspaper, “Since [Portland] started charging for parking on July 1 , the number of cars with disabled permits occupying prime metered spaces has apparently dropped by as much as 70 percent, according to Portland Bureau of Transportation data.”
Says Baltimore's Little, “MCOD members consistently said, ‘We want a hand up, not a hand out,’ meaning they wanted accessibility to on-street parking (which was scarce in many parts of the city because of the abuse of disability placards) and not free parking.”
4. Trust, But Verify
Operations that control their own parking spaces, such as medical and university campuses, may have additional options to ensure accessible space use is legitimate.
“At the University of Central Oklahoma (UCO),” says Justine Tozer, the university's assistant director for transportation and parking services, “we require that anyone using an accessible parking placard on our campus in a permit-required lot register their placard with us and also purchase a disability permit.
We call the state of issuance to verify ownership of the placard. Only the person who is the owner of the placard is permitted to register and utilize the placard. Our accessible parking signs post include an additional sign below that states, ‘UCO Disability Permit Required.’”
5. Heighten Public Awareness, Shame Abusers
Where possible, enlist the help of the media. The California Department of Motor Vehicles has conducted effective stings accompanied by the media.
A coordinated public relations campaign in Baltimore helped smooth the way for the implementation of their on-street accessible parking program.
6. Actively Enforce Regulations
Like the California DMV, the city of Houston actively partners with local police to enforce regulations. “We also conduct periodic stings and check the identification of the parker to identify placards being abused,” said Melonie Curry, staff analyst for ParkHouston.
7. Dedicate the Proceeds to the Constituency Served
UCLA's Shoup recommends dedicating a portion of new revenues to improving transportation options for persons with disabilities.
Peter Little adds, “The mission is not to generate revenue. However, through better management of the program, we have generated more revenue.
I think it is safe to say that because of ProjectSPACE, parking meter revenues have increased by over $2 million annually, while total cumulative expenses to date for the eff ort are about $1.5 million.”
By directly benefiting the target constituency with the new revenue, such as Baltimore did by creating accessible on-street parking, managers can build support for tough measures against placard abusers. Eliminating placard cheating will not be easy. But it is also a key to solving a number of related issues.
For example, says Little, “Meaningful, demand-based parking meter rate setting would not be possible without ProjectSPACE. If we raised meter rates in any area in order to try to create more space availability without the program in place, it would have just exacerbated the theft and abuse of disability placards, thus thwarting our efforts.
When municipalities try to introduce demand-based parking meter rate settings without first addressing disability placard abuse, I’m at a loss in figuring out how they can be successful.”
Charles R. “Charlie” Munn III, CPP is the co-founder and CEO of the H2H2H Foundation. He is a former commercial parking executive and now works internationally. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.