How Handicap Placard Abuse Threatens SF’s Parking Reforms

If cities needed any more reason to curb handicap placard abuse, here it is. The authors of a new study out of Los Angeles point out that rampant placard abuse threatens to undermine performance parking programs like SFPark by skewing the data and the price of parking, the Atlantic Cities explains:

Photo: ## Quesada/Flickr##

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.

The authors of the study, Michael Manville of Cornell and Jonathan Williams of Fehr & Peers Transportation Consultants in Seattle, call for abolishing free parking perks for handicap placard holders because they work against the interests of the most seriously disabled and poorest members of society, who are not travelling by car. Additionally, they write, “the externalities of this clumsy subsidy threaten to undermine a transportation reform that could deliver large benefits to all citizens.”

As we reported recently, the SF Municipal Transportation Agency is in the early stages of developing a campaign to curb placard abuse, which could involve eliminating the free parking perks enshrined in state law.

While there’s still little or no research showing the extent of the problem in San Francisco, the LA study adds to the growing body of evidence showing that the problem is pervasive in major California cities. As the Sacramento Bee recently reported, 73 percent of cars parked on one street near the state capitol were found to be using handicap placards, and “the number of placards in Sacramento has risen far faster in recent years than population growth.”

In LA, the Fehr and Peers study sheds light upon the problem in greater detail, as Eric Jaffe at the Atlantic Cities writes:

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.

With the development of SFPark as a model for other cities to better manage their parking supply, there’s extra urgency for the SFMTA to take swift action on getting rid of free parking perks.

Note: This article was revised to show that the study authors did not recommend ending the parking placard system, but ending free parking perks only.

  • Did you consider looking at those who are over 65 in the population that are increasing? There is probably still abuse but more retirees probably have more difficulty getting around due to the suburban environment requiring car dependence instead of walking to transit and utilizing transit.

  • Nobody

    Are they really uses spaces filled, and not meters paid, as the occupancy metric?  That seems pretty flawed.

  • Gneiss

    Nobody – they are using both metrics.  Here’s what they found in terms of meters paid:

    “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” 

  • This is not an article about a suburban environment, is it?

    What galls me is that if I try to maintain my health into my later years, which I am trying very hard to do, and do not need a disabled placard, and I can use transit, I have to pay.

    But if I become unhealthy, I get to park for free…

  • Anonymous

    Only the study authors didn’t recommend getting rid of the placard program. Eric Jaffe badly misrepresented them in the Atlantic Cities article.  From the comments:
    Nowhere in our article do we remotely suggest doing away with disabled placards. Disabled placards serve an extremely important purpose, in helping people with disabilities access reserved parking space near curb cuts and wheelchair ramps and so on. We do advocate ending the payment exemption that allows placard holders to park free at conventional meters (we also support removing time limits for such holders, however). The distinction is important.-Mike Manville

  • KillMoto

    Handicapped != poor
    Time to charge them market rate. Let them park as long as they want (don’t make a person who walks with pain feed the meter every 2hours) but do charge them. Market forces will prevail

  • Guest/EL

    Possible errant reporting by Atlantic Cities, carried over to Streetsblog.  One of the comments in the Atlantic Cities article is from Mike Manville, co-author of the study: 

    “Nowhere in our article do we remotely suggest doing away with disabled
    placards. Disabled placards serve an extremely important purpose, in
    helping people with disabilities access reserved parking space near curb
    cuts and wheelchair ramps and so on. We do advocate ending the payment
    exemption that allows placard holders to park free at conventional
    meters (we also support removing time limits for such holders, however).
    The distinction is important.
    -Mike Manville”

  • Guest/EL

     Never mind.  I see that “pchazzz” already posted to the same effect.

  • Otrannel

     SES Impacts the Lives of the People With a Disability
    with a disability are likely to have limited opportunities to earn
    income and often have increased medical expenses. Disabilities among
    children and adults may affect the socioeconomic standing of entire
    families. It is estimated that over 40 million people in America have
    some level of disability, and many of these individuals live in poverty
    (U.S. Census Bureau, 2006). Although the Americans with Disabilities Act
    assures equal opportunities in education and employment for people with
    and without disabilities and prohibits discrimination on the basis of
    disability, people with disabilities remain overrepresented among
    America’s poor and undereducated. Some data suggest causal relationships
    between low SES and the development of disability in late adulthood
    (Coppin et al., 2006). These barriers contribute to discrepancies in
    wealth and socioeconomic opportunities for persons with a disability and
    their families.

    from APA

  • Otrannel – There is a trend, and the correlation has causation, but…

    The answer to this issue is not to give free parking to the handicapped. The answer is to not give free parking at all, and give subsidy to people who have less, which they can spend on parking if they like.

  • Richard Mlynarik

    But if I become unhealthy, I get to park for free…

    If you’re even abstractly thinking this as an upside, you can’t have ever met anybody who knows somebody who has read about a report of somebody who had ever been injured!

  • Nathanael

    There is something whacked about this.  Here in upstate NY, my fiancee has a handicapped placard.  It enables her to park in reserved handicapped spaces.

    Which have parking meters.  And she has to pay the meter.

    What’s going on in California?

  • Nathanael

    As two other people have noted, please correct this post.  The authors do NOT call for abolition of handicapped placards.  They call for retention of handicapped placards, but elimination of the “free parking” perk.

  • This was already corrected.

  • Anonymous

    I totally agree … there’s no reason that all drivers are not treated equal in regards to paying the parking meter.

  • Laughingatyourpain

    If they are going to eliminate the “free parking at metered spaces” then they will have to put in a bunch of handicapped spaces, or there will be nowhere I can park.  The only reason I can park (Usually a CityCarShare since I can’t afford a van) at all downtown is to park at a meter, there are no disabled spaces partly because of the meters rule.

    And how the heck can they claim that this somehow hurts the extra poor who don’t have a vehicle and yet that the only mostly poor disabled folks who almost HAVE to have a vehicle (go ahead, I dare you to try to get a wheelchair taxi or try to use MUNI during rush hour with one) won’t get screwed?

    Handicapped parking spaces exist so that those of us who cannot walk far or well can get to our destination without having to cross entire lots, and ensures parking for ramp vans which allow a safe exit and entry for wheelchair users (and ramp van parking in the City is almost impossible to find, thanks).

    As for “all drivers treated equal”, not all placard users CAN drive; some of us are being driven by others. And most disabled Americans are below the Federal poverty line, so the idea that we’re getting a huge break is pretty laughable.

    Cracking down on placard abuse might be a good idea; there are several ways we could better enforce that the person who has a right to a placard is actually a driver or a passenger (a lot of the placards on the street may be issued to dead people, for example, and ther are reports of doctors being overly generous with placards, issuing permanents when there should be temporaries and so on).  If placards were only going to the truly needy, there wouldn’t be so many of them on the streets.

  • Laughingatyourpain

     Actually, the average disabled American is at or below the Federal poverty level, and that’s including a lot of people who can and do work – anybody who is solely on Social Security disability is at or below the line, and many are far below.

  • Laughingatyourpain

     Wow, Mustaphoe, you’re really optimistic about your retirement being a healthy one. I was too, til I got me this shiny wheelchair. 1 in 7 of us will end up disabled at least temporarily, and it isn’t as simple as “being good and staying healthy” if you get hit by a bus or a disease. People like you make me wish I could stick you with a week of being me as an educational exercise. Only without the parking permit.

  • Fine, drive all you want and park all you want in spaces marked for handicapped parking. And pay for it.

    If money is tight, try cancelling your cable bill.

  • By having a disabled placard system that is so rife with abuse, we have a system that treats truly disabled people very poorly as their parking spots get filled up with shams and cheats. I am all for preferential disabled parking for people who are truly disabled. In fact, I think there should be little street parking in most dense commercial districts except for the disabled. But as to the parking being free, it makes no sense to make a blanket subsidy in order to subsidize a truly needy subset. Though this may not be the case everywhere, in San Francisco there are many new, very expensive cars with disabled placards. (On a recent bike ride from GG Park to the Castro I noted a Mercedes, a BMW and a Corvette.)  

    A disabled placard can be worth $15,000 of free parking a year in San Francisco. No wonder there is so much abuse! We need to figure out a way to give subsidies only to the truly needy. The disabled placard system needs to be regulated and monitored so it becomes legitimate. The state government should randomly audit the patients of doctors who certify more than 10 placards a year to see if all the recipients are verifiably disabled, with doctors who abuse the system disqualified for 5 years from certifying disabled placard applications. The police should also do random stings of vehicles pulling into disabled spots in high density commercial districts to verify that someone in the car is the disabled person associated with the disabled placard.

  • mikesonn

    I never once got the feeling from this article Streetsblog was advocating for the complete elimination of placards.

  • Anonymous

    Laughing – I got 8 weeks of being you when I fractured my pelvis, and I did not have a placard. In fact i wasn’t allowed to drive and unlike that goof at Noe/Duboce I followed the orders.

    When someone would take me somewhere, I paid the meter.

  • Anonymous

    The (true!) argument is that many/most/whatever disabled people are below the poverty line because of their handicap.

    However – there is a 1-1 correlation between people below the poverty line and … People below the poverty line.

    Your argument would say that we give free parking to people who are poor, not people who have handicaps.

    How about this – we do a means test – people below a certain income threshold get free parking. And we expand the number of handicapped spots, but they are not free unless you also have an income level placard.

    That solves the problem of availability of close spots, and the income disparity problem for those in poverty, and ends the problem of people abusing handicapped placards solely to avoid paying because instead of convincing a doctor to get you a placard you have to pass an income means test.

    There are plenty of holes in this strategy too, exercise for the reader.

  • Anonymous


    Backwards. If everyone has to pay, some will no longer drive, and it will be EASIER for you to get a spot, not harder.

  • Andy Chow

    If somehow we believe that disability alone no longer should receive free/reduced cost on transportation/parking, we should be consistent by eliminating senior/disabled transit discounts. Why shouldn’t they pay full fare like the rest of us?

    I believe that disabled people should have those discounts, and should be able to get those discounts without making the process cumbersome (like requiring to apply for a discount fare card to be eligible for discounted one way fares for occasional trips).

    I am OK with curbing abuses, but I don’t think we should consider parking income from the disabled as a revenue source. If we want to convert more drivers to non-auto transportation, we should first target the people that are more able and willing (like younger and non-disabled folks). Many people who are physically disabled have more difficulty in accessing transit, unable to ride a bike, and can’t walk or stand for too long, and I think it is offensive if we believe that they act just like us.

  • mikesonn

    Andy, not sure what your comment is based on.

    Currently: free parking, disounted transit. Huge parking abuse to point that legitment disabled can’t access parking easily.

    Something has to change. But to say that if free parking goes then so goes discounted transit because it isn’t fair, really? And no one here is advocating that disabled person “act just like us”.

  • Anonymous

    @014d815e337305dccb0b861fe6cdb3e3:disqus , I always thought that senior/disabled transit discounts were provided because some people are simply unable to drive, so it is very important for them to have affordable transit options so as not to cut off their mobility entirely. I don’t see the same issue occurring regarding private car parking, as if one can not afford to feed the meter they still have other options to get around such as paratransit, regular transit, biking (yes, many disabled persons can and do bike), etc.

    “I don’t think we should consider parking income from the disabled as a revenue source”

    The whole concept of increasing parking fees is to encourage turnover, not to make money. That’s why SF has been trying to price spots at the minimum amount that will achieve acceptable turnover, and not based on the actual market rate for that plot of land (hint: much higher than $5/hr). If we start charging for parking then some of the people with disabled placards who don’t need to drive will choose other options, leaving more parking spaces available for those people who absolutely must use a private car out of necessity. The availability of transit is not as finite a resource as parking, so we do need to encourage fewer people to hog parking spots unnecessarily, whereas our transit systems can expand much more fluidly to accomodate additional passengers.

  • Andy Chow

    I believe that senior/disabled discounts were provided based on the recognition that most of those live on limited income. It is consistent with other social policies like Medicare, SSI, etc.

    A lot of disabled people may not drive, but they could still be driven. For safety and convenience reasons, they may prefer to get a ride from a friend or a family member. The social subsidy provided via free parking is far, far less than the subsidy provided if that person is taking a para-transit trip. Some disabled people don’t like to take regular transit because they need to use lifts and that they don’t want to delay everybody else. Of course some of the disabled folks can ride a bike, but I doubt that they will qualify for a placard or paratransit (even though they can qualify for a transit discount card).

    I don’t think we should attack the social policy of disability discounts for the sake of “parking turnovers.” Go ahead encourage parking turnovers among those who are the most able and willing to convert to non-auto transportation (like employees who leave their cars for the whole day), but leave those who are the least able and willing alone.

  • mikesonn

    The problem: abled bodied people abusing the placards. Reason: free unlimited parking. Solution: remove motivation, eg the free unlimited parking.

    Done and done.

  • It should be noted that while Manville and Williams have since moved on, the actual research for the study was conducted while both authors were at UCLA in the urban planning department — Manville as a postdoctoral researcher and Williams as a master’s degree candidate. Hence the LA focus. Congrats to both on this well-deserved publicity for their important research (from a fellow UCLA planning alum).

  •  Andy – the amount of land dedicated to free parking in SF right now, turned into sellable real estate, would pay for para-transit trips for many, many years…

  • Andy Chow

    I am in favor of cracking down on abuses, but I don’t think it should come at the expense of the disabled population.

    Also, one parking spot occupied by a driver who is more willing and able to use non-auto transportation is one less parking spot available to the disabled who are less willing and able. It would be more cost effective to convert the more willing and able (by enhance transit, bike, etc) than to convert those who are less willing and able (paratransit). The traffic congestion is not caused by the disabled. We won’t have traffic and parking problem if only the disabled are riding or driving in automobiles.

    I am just appalled by the blame-the-disabled attitude here.

  • mikesonn

    “We won’t have traffic and parking problem if only the disabled are riding or driving in automobiles.”

    Exactly, but how this relates isn’t clear to me.

    “I am just appalled by the blame-the-disabled attitude here.”

    Not sure where you got any such impression. Actually, it is the exact OPPOSITE! Abled bodied people are abusing disabled placards. Not sure how much more clear we can be.

  • Andy Chow

    Parking enforcement to curb abuse is OK, so is making changes to the program to make it harder cheat. I don’t think it is acceptable to reduce the benefits (including free parking) so as to reduce the incentive to cheat. Disabled folks do not deserve reduced benefits.

    It wouldn’t be any more acceptable for me to require enrollment or application to Clipper or other similar program for a child, senior, or disabled to get any fare discount. Today it is not required for one way fares, but most agencies that have adopted Clipper now require special Clipper cards for discounted monthly passes. I know that some transit agency staff like it because it cuts down on fare cheats, but it does add an inconvenience factor and make some people who are eligible for the discount not to take full advantage of it (by paying more expensive one way fares rather than traveling across town to get a card to buy monthly passes).

  • Anonymous

    @014d815e337305dccb0b861fe6cdb3e3:disqus I still think that a focus on preserving mobility is a better long-term goal for the city than concentrating on keeping parking cheap for seniors and disabled citizens. Those goals may go hand in hand in some circumstances, and not in others.

    A better implementation of this would be something like a commuter check for parking fees, so that the person still pays at the meter but gets a monthly allowance to pay for their expenses. This way it is easier to make sure the people who actually need the benefit are the only ones who are getting it (disabled/senior + limited income), and by paying at the meter it forces people to make conscious decisions about how long they actually need to use that parking space.

    “I am just appalled by the blame-the-disabled attitude here.”

    I feel that this comment is inappropriate and undeserved. Everyone here seems to be mostly interested in cracking down on abuse of the disabled placard system, which would result in a benefit for those who rely on it the most. Being critical and having a discussion about how this might be implemented does not equal a lack of concern for those that it would affect.

  • Anonymous

    @peternatural:disqus You are too quick to throw disabled people under the bus with your cruel remark suggesting disabled people should cancel their cable bill.  They probably don’t have cable bills. Consider:  “[A]bout half of all working-age adults who experience income poverty have a disability, and that almost two-thirds of such adults experiencing long-term income poverty have a disability. People with disabilities account for a larger share of those experiencing income poverty than people in any single minority or ethnic group (or, in fact, all minority ethnic and racial groups combined); they also, despite the recent fixation on all matters marital in certain anti-poverty policy circles, account for a larger share of the income poor than single parents. Of course, disability is experienced by all of these groups—the point here isn’t that disparities between those with disabilities and those without are more important than racial, ethnic, or gender disparities, but rather that they deserve the same kind of attention as other important forms of disparity have received in anti-poverty research circles.”, Shawn, (September, 2009) Half in Ten – Why Taking Disability into Account is Essential to Reducing Income Povery and Expanding Economic Inclusion, Center for Economic Policy Research
    The fact that the disabled placard system is rife with abuse does not necessarily mean that it should be eliminated, only that it should be reformed along the lines of what Karen Lynn Allen suggests.

  • pchazzz – you are using the same propaganda tactics as Andy Chow. Stop.

    Karen’s suggestion is interesting but costly. The simple solution is 2 categories of placards, one which is means tested against income. If you aren’t poor, you don’t get to park for free.

    This would curb 100% of the abuse of placards from non-disabled people who are simply trying to bypass paying for parking, but allows disabled people who are of means to still utilize blue painted spots. I would predict a drastic falloff in numbers of placards, as people who push for them not so that they can get accessible parking, but solely for free parking, would evaporate from the system.


  • Anonymous

    No, @murphstahoe:disqus I am using facts. They speak for themselves.

  • mikesonn

    I look forward to @014d815e337305dccb0b861fe6cdb3e3:disqus & @pchazzz:disqus leading the fight for free transit passes for the disabled.


  • Guest/EL

    Streetsblog article was revised after mine and pchazzz’s post.

  • mikesonn

    Usually there is an “updated at X:XX” at the bottom of the article. Aaron, did you update this? I’m pretty sure I read this right after it was posted, just didn’t comment right away since I was on my phone. Maybe I missed the first revision, but doubt it.

  • I did revise it. I did it really quickly after coming home and seeing the comments and forgot to add a note of it (it was actually my vacation day). When writing the piece I did try to look at the study to verify facts in the article, but it’s available by paid subscription only, and I figured the Atlantic Cities is generally trustworthy. I don’t know why they haven’t changed their article, but indeed I do not see any direct quotes from the authors calling for an end to the placard system.

  • mikesonn

    Thank you for working on your day off, first of all. And thank you for updating it as well. I think the current version is stated very well and is the correct stance (no total removal of placards but an elimination of the abuse incentive).

  • I cruelly cancelled my own cable bill years ago and have been laughing all the way to the bank ever since.

    As for facts, here’s one: only 28.7% of Americans with an ambulatory disability live in poverty. ( — under “Step Two” select “Ambulatory Disability” for disability type and click “Search”).

    What’s next, free parking for minorities, since they have elevated poverty rates as well? Obviously, that would be an absurd way to address the problem!

  • @peternatural – and you give the stats for ambulatory disability. The stats for people with nominal respiratory illnesses is probably a lot lower.

  • sarahb

    It’s more than just the free parking. It’s parking vs no parking now too. If there is a disabled placard spot free and no other parking then there is still incentive to cheat. One of the other problems is that the city’s population of people who have cars is growing and the city is doing little to address that.

  • sarahb

    And if you remain health you have the good luck of not needing a placard. That is an experience which is priceless and will be wasted on you for not understanding that. I would pay 1000 times over to be well.


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