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: ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/nicholasquesada/4777799857/in/photostream/##Nicholas 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.

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