The One Where I Pick on the Disabled


A handicapped placard in downtown Saint Paul.

I was at a meeting a while back about a new parking policy in downtown Saint Paul. The city was changing its policies about handicapped parking. Until very recently, anyone with a handicapped parking placard on their dashboard was allowed to park for free all day downtown.

As it turned out, that was not such a good idea. The city did a rough survey of downtown parking spots and found handicapped placard cars were everywhere, taking up a huge amount of the downtown on-street parking. So this summer, the city has begun limiting free parking for handicapped placard cars to four hours in an attempt to alleviate the problem.

I felt sorry for the engineer working on placard parking issue. Picking on the disabled is just about the most politically poisonous thing a person can do. (Kinda like harassing nuns?)

But it turns out, handicapped placards are a big problem! The results from the cursory Saint Paul survey (about 25%) are closely matched by a study done in L.A., where cars with handicapped placards occupied a significant amount of the total on-street parking supply.

Well, someone has to pick on the disabled. Politicians aren’t going to do it. (OK, maybe Mitt Romney…) And I don’t want city staff to have to do it. So I’ll do it. I’ll ask the tough questions.

How can we stop the scourge of handicapped placard cars parking in our our valuable downtown on-street spaces?

Placard Abuse


The first problem with free parking for the disabled is the issue of “placard fraud.” One issue not often discussed is that many people with handicapped placards are not actually disabled.

(Probably the most egregious example, taken from Donald Shoup’s book on parking, was the entire UCLA football team.)

I’d imagine that many of these kinds of abuses happen somewhat innocently. You might get a handicapped placard for a short-term disability (like a broken leg) and then keep using it. A friend of mine (who shall not be named) keeps using the handicapped placard of her late husband to park downtown. While there is a grassroots website devoted to combatting placard fraud, there is almost zero enforcement of handicapped placards. (Cops don’t want to be seen picking on people with disabilities either!)

There are different kinds of parking abuse, ranging from tampering with meters to different kinds of “official use” placards (e.g. police, diplomats, public officials, etc.). But handicapped placards are by far the most common.

[Yes, there’s a great Seinfeld episode about this too!]

Handicapped Spaces vs. Downtown Meters

But even for legitimately disabled people properly using placards, is free unlimited downtown parking a good thing?

When I think of the archetypical “handicapped parking space”, I think of the mall parking lot. There, and in most places (strip malls, fast food restaurants, museums, etc), the spaces closest to the door are reserved for the disabled. It makes sense, and is a rare example of our society treating people with dignity despite limited mobility.

But in almost all those examples, parking is “free” for everyone. (Note: actually this parking is very expensive, but the cost is embedded in the costs of land, services, and goods and paid for by all users.) When you get to downtowns, the situation is different. On-street parking represents an undervalued premium, and local businesses depend on having these spots turn over frequently. Millions and millions of dollars are spent on expensive ramps to alleviate the “parking problem.” 

This begs the question: While everyone agrees that disabled people deserve convenient parking close to their destination, should they also have a right to free parking? 

The distinction is important, because if enough people start using handicapped placards to take occupy valuable on-street spaces, free parking for the disabled becomes counterproductive. If all the spaces in downtown areas are given away, they become scarce and difficult to find. Picture a situation where a person with a disability can’t find a spot because they are all occupied by handicapped placards parking for free all day. If the parking studies are any indication, that’s the actual situation in many downtowns right now!

Demographics and Trends

handicapped-placard-growthParking is one of those things that drives people crazy, and many Americans today (like George Costanza) live by the creed that they are entitled to free parking in any city at any time.

But the costs of this kind of behavior are extreme: congestion from “cruising”, pollution, expensive overbuilt parking lots everywhere, impervious runoff, lack of green space, unwalkable cities. 

And it’s only going to get worse. Two trends are going to make this problem increasingly difficult to solve.

Boomer Americans are rapidly aging, and the demand for handicapped parking placards will likely skyrocket over the next ten years. Meanwhile, for lots of good reasons, downtowns are increasingly attempting to reduce parking minimums. Unless we start charging more for parking downtown, these colliding trends will increase both legitimate and fraudulent use of on-street spaces, and make problems worse for everyone. 

Instead, if we want to make parking convenient and fair for everyone, we need to rethink how we can best serve disabled people. For example, in Portland (of course) they’ve recently changed the rules to make disabled drivers pay for metered spots. If we want actually people with disabilities to be able to park  outside their destination (and we do!), that won’t happen until we charge the full market value for on-street parking. That will remove the incentive for placard abuse (which should also be more thoroughly enforced).

… OK. I did it. I picked on the disabled. Now I have to live with myself. How will I sleep tonight? I’m gonna find a nun and step on her toes. 


Saint Paul has had a 4-hour limit on free handicapped placard parking at meters since 2004. The recent change was to make that 4-hour limit a daily limit. Here’s part of the memo from the city on the topic:

State statute stipulates that vehicles with disability placards or license plates may park in metered spaces without obligation to pay the meter fee, and without time restrictions, unless those time restrictions are posted separately from the general time restrictions1. In the City of Saint Paul, a time limit of four hours is separately posted for those exercising a disability parking privilege at all metered spaces, with the exception of spaces with a thirty minute time limit. The four hour time limit was set with the understanding that the added convenience of an on-street space may have added value to a person with reduced mobility, and that required a person with a disability to move their vehicle after two hours may be a significant hardship to carry out the purposes intended to be promoted by metered parking.

The current ordinances allow for those with disability certificates or plates to park their vehicles for four hours for free at a metered space and, after moving their vehicles a minimum of two blocks, park for an additional four hours. The ability to “repark” within two blocks, when combined with the common four hour time limits, makes using disability placards or plates a very attractive option for those working downtown, who otherwise would likely be required to pay over $100 a month to park their vehicle in an off-street facility. This type of use is contrary to the intended purpose of the disability parking privilege, and creates an incentive for those who may not need to park close to their destination to acquire a disability plate or certificate.

A parking survey conducted in the summer of 2013 in the downtown core revealed 24% of all vehicles parked were exercising their disability parking privilege. As of March 2012, there were 4,411,496 passenger vehicles registered in the State of Minnesota. According to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, there were approximately 400,000 disability certificates and 28,000 disability license plates registered statewide. There is approximately one disability certificate or plate registered for every ten vehicles, yet nearly one in four vehicles parked in the surveyed meter zone is displaying a disability plate or certificate.

Bill Lindeke

About Bill Lindeke

Pronouns: he/him

Bill Lindeke has writing blogging about sidewalks and cities since 2005, ever since he read Jane Jacobs. He is a lecturer in Urban Studies at the University of Minnesota Geography Department, the Cityscape columnist at Minnpost, and has written multiple books on local urban history. He was born in Minneapolis, but has spent most of his time in St Paul. Check out Twitter @BillLindeke or on Facebook.