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.

39 thoughts on “The One Where I Pick on the Disabled

  1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

    If only people felt as much moral angst about picking on the disabled using a fraudulent placard by illegitimately occupying a space they could be using!

    Instead, I’ve heard perfectly healthy people lament that they forgot to brings someone else’s placard so they could park easier. My gosh, what’s wrong with you people? Not only is it not going to hurt you to walk a little, it’s almost certainly good for you.

  2. Evan RobertsEvan Roberts

    The policy also strictly equates physical disability with inability to pay, which is a weakly supported hypothesis. People with mobility impairments will genuinely take a little extra time to access destinations from a given starting point, but a totally free parking policy almost certainly over-compensates for this issue.

    Letting people with mobility impairments park for (say) 3 hours for the price of 2, would be closer to a fair reflection of the problem. But complex rules are harder to enforce.

    1. Rosa

      is free parking with a disabled placard common in cities, or just here? Because on most transit systems, there’s a disability discount but not free transit tickets (including ours. The discount is more than half, but it’s not to $0). You’d think parking would be similar.

      I do think the newer payment system, the numbers you have to remember to walk over to the paybox and type in, would be an argument for free parking for people with mobility issues – in a lot of cases the paybox is as far away as wherever I’m going from where I parked, sometimes in the wrong direction. I bet in some cases there are bad curbs with no cuts in the way, too.

      For example: I used to pay to park in front of the East Lake library occasionally when I had multiple little kids with me, but now if you park in front of the building you have to cross their parking lot entrance to get to the pay box, so it’s just as much hassle/danger as parking on 31st street and walking in on the sidewalk.

      1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

        Interesting points about the pay box. Still, that’s the best solution to having actual turnover and enforcement that we’ve come across so far.

        As to your question, think it’s very common. I.e. all of California (until recently?) Lots of state-wide laws on it, like here in Minnesota.

        1. Rosa

          It seems really odd to me that parking would be free when transit isn’t, since ability to pay would seem to be more of an issue for transit dependent people than car drivers in general.

      2. Nathanael

        The paybox systems are a lot worse than traditional meters in terms of disabled access, due to the extensive walking required to get to them. The absolute minimum for payboxes would be one per block, but two per block would be much better.

        Traditional meters are, of course, at every space.

  3. John

    Many states/cities are moving to a tiered system where only the severely disabled continue to have a free parking at meters benefit. Under the tiered system people with temporary placards and normal blue placards no longer receive free parking. A new type placard (tier) is introduced which has much more stringent eligibility requirements. And only those who qualify under the stricter rules are allowed to park for free. Both Portland and Chicago, among others, have recently introduced a tiered system.

    As a side note, the explosion of issued permits also introduces a supply and demand issue. The ADA minimum requirements for the number of disabled reserved spaces in a parking lot is around 2%, far below the percent of issued permits. Thus resulting in supply being far lower than demand in most public parking lots. Either the ADA minimum required needs to be increased to increase supply or the eligibility requirements for a permit tightened to lower demand. Or perhaps some of both.

    1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

      It’s extremely rare that I see all handicapped spots filled (and many of the people who are using the ones that are filled appear to have no obvious handicap). Where are you getting your data?

      1. John

        Minimum requirements for ADA can be found at, it varies by lot size but averages out close to 2%.

        As for number of issued permits, you can call the DVS or DPS and request the information. If you combine all the active temporary, permanent, and commercial permits there are currently over 450,000. And there are over 100,000 new request each year. Keep in mind, there are also many temporary permits that expire each year. So the total number doesn’t increase by 100,000 each year.

        Now you have to take the total number of permits and compare to something to get a percentage. The most logical choices are compare to total population, total registered number of vehicles, or total number of current valid driver license.

        I personally like to use the number of driver licenses because it requires one valid drivers license to drive and park a car. Some people may own more than one car and some people with a drivers license may not own a car.

        There are currently about 4 million valid drivers in Minnesota. Again, you can get this information from DVS or DPS. So 450,000 / 4,000,000 = 11%. Meaning for any given car being driven there is a 11% chance the driver or someone in the car has a valid disabled parking permit.

        Now you add on top of that all the people who fraudulently use a permit (borrowing a family or friends placard being #1 fraudulent use), and there is actually > 11% chance a car is looking for a disabled parking space.

        The best places to see shortages are big box stores, grocery stores, hospitals/clinics, etc. Think retail, restaurant, and services parking lots, not employer parking lots. And the best times of course are during high volume, like during holidays, after work at grocery stores, etc.

        You may not notice all handicapped spots are filled unless you are always looking to park there. But I can assure you, the chances all handicap spots being full are far greater than all non-handicapped ones being full. Take the Mall of America for example, how often are all handicap spots at MOA full compared to all non-handicap spots being full?

        1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

          Thanks John, that makes sense on the numbers. Not sure how well it translates to reality but perhaps it does. Are you disabled? How often are all places filled in your experience?

          1. John

            Hi Walker,

            Yes I am disabled. I use a converted min-van with a side entry ramp for transportation. So I rely on Van Accessible handicap parking stalls (stalls with 8′ wide hash areas rather than the standard 5′ wide). I would say all the Van Accessible stalls are full around 30-40% of the time. When they are I typically park in the back of the parking lot and hope no one will park next to me.

            As far as all handicap parking stalls being full, that’s less often. I don’t pay as much attention to this but on nice days at my local Target store I sometimes sit outside and watch people coming/going. I would guesstimate all handicap stalls there all full around 15-20% of the time. I don’t think I’ve ever seen all the non-handicap parking stalls at my local Target full. During the Christmas holiday season it comes close, but even then there typically are still a few far out open ones.

            Translating to reality is a bit tricky. Much depends on the products and services a store provides. Naturally places that offer physically demanding products and services will have less of a problem. And places that cater more to the elderly and people with disabilities will have more of a problem. This is why places that cater more to the general public, like big box stores, malls, grocery stores, etc are perhaps the best indicators of supply/demand concerns.

            1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

              John. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences.

              I’m more interesting in downtowns and meter policy. I think, for the most part, the current private surface parking lot policies (e.g. the mall or the Target store) are working out pretty well for people with disabilities, right? Surely there are places that do this better and worse, but over all it seems to be working.

              I’m more concerned about placard abuse in downtown-type areas with a lot of on-street parking congestion.

              1. John


                There’s not much difference between downtown and private surface parking. Where you see fraud and abuse downtown you will see the same fraud and abuse at the mall or Target. The only significant difference being where employee’s and owners park. That same person who is willing to fraudulently park downtown will turn around and do the same thing at the mall or Target.

                So concentrating only on how to stem fraudulent use at meters is only narrowly addressing the overall issue.

            2. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

              I’m curious about how van access would work with on-street spaces. If we had more two-way streets, and we allowed people with such vans to park “the wrong way” so the ramp faces out to the street, would that help or hurt access? What would be the barriers, and possible solutions, to using such a van at your average on-street parking space? Thanks!

              1. John

                It would be very dangerous to deploy a ramp/lift and enter/exit your vehicle into lanes of traffic. The time it takes to deploy your ramp, exit the vehicle, and retract your ramp is far greater than the time it takes for a non-disabled person to exit/enter the driver seat. Were talking multiple minutes versus a few seconds.

                And once you are out you would need to go down the street to find a curb cutout to get up onto the sidewalk. Adding even more time your blocking traffic and in a dangerous situation.

                I’ve had people walk into my ramp at stores while entering/exiting my vehicle. I surely wouldn’t want a car to run into my ramp 😉

                Most vans with lifts/ramps that park on streets park close enough to the curb that when their ramp is deployed it reaches the curb and acts like a bridge. So when you exit your vehicle you go out on the ramp and onto the sidewalk thus not having to deal with the curb.

                The only time this doesn’t work well is if there are obstacles on the sidewalk. Say a post/pole, a bench, a garbage can, a magazine/newspaper rack, bus stop, scaffolding, table/chairs, etc.

    2. Nathanael

      John: that makes sense. My fiancee has a placard because she can’t walk very far. She has no problem paying.

      The ‘park for free’ placards should be restricted to those who have disabilities which prevent them from feeding the meter.

  4. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    Riddle me this…
    In a perfect Shoupian world, where we properly price street parking to ensure 85% occupancy, would we even need special accommodations for handicapped users of general purpose on-street spaces? There would certainly be an empty spot on each blockface, allowing mobility-impaired users to store their cars close to their destination (just like everyone else). After all, the purpose of handicapped parking is to ensure shorter distances from destinations. The purpose is not to further subsidize the cost of parking.

    1. John

      Provided there is an accessible route and meter/pay boxes themselves are accessible then you would not need special accommodations.

      Distance to a destination is only one aspect to handicap parking. The most vital part is an accessible route. An accessible route requires space to exit/enter your vehicle and a barrier free route to your destination. Bike paths between the parking space and the street is an example of an accessible route barrier. There isn’t enough room to deploy a ramp and exit your vehicle. The ramp is to short to reach the curb and it’s too long to provide room to drive off the end without running into the curb.

      Meters and pay boxes themselves may not be accessible. People who cannot raise their arms high enough, or have enough hand strength/dexterity may not be able to reach or operate them.

      But I agree, the purpose of disabled parking is not to further subsidize the cost. It’s sole purpose is to provide access.

      1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

        As I mentioned above a smartphone payment app would seem a good solution to accessible meters.

        Interesting what you said about bike paths. This is exactly the opposite of The Netherlands where disabled use the bicycle network itself for their mobility and complain quite heartily about the U.S. and just about every country outside NL.

        Specific to what you mentioned, are you referring to the curb between a cycletrack and sidewalk (assuming traffic lane(s), parallel parking, cycletrack, sidewalk)?

        1. John

          I was specifically trying to mention cases in downtown Minneapolis where a bike lane will be between the curb and parking stall. So when you park there is a bike lane between your car and the curb. In these cases it is very hard for someone with a ramp/lift to enter/exit their vehicle.

          Bike paths and trials in general, well paved ones anyway, are great for wheelchair users. There much nicer due to not having cracks ever few feet like sidewalks have. Makes for a much smoother ride.

        2. John

          Oh, and yes smartphone payment app would make things much easier for most disabled. There will still be a few who don’t have the dexterity required to operate a smartphone but it would still be very beneficial to many.

          1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

            I think Saint Paul is working to allow a private smartphone parking app where you could pay for your spot via your phone without having to walk to the pay kiosk (for a small fee, of course). This just came before the city Transportation Committee and Public Works is working on it, IIRC.

              1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

                The paybox is free; the app has to charge people for the convenience of not going to the paybox.

                Not everyone has a smart phone, and we need to have something for everyone, no?

                1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

                  Of course an app would charge, if a city granted it exclusive access to their transaction grid. If anyone could create an app, the transaction cost would be zero and the market’s transaction price would approach zero.

                  For comparison, OMG Transit doesn’t charge to look at bus schedules. But if MetroTransit granted access to data exclusively (and it was the only way to access bus schedules electronically) then there would likely be a charge.

                  In general, organizations implement technology because it automates processes and lowers transaction costs and risks. Thus technology saves money, and I am inherently skeptical anytime I pay for a transaction facilitated by technology that would be free with lesser technology.

                  The convenience of not going to the paybox theoretically reduces demand for payboxes, which are thousands of dollars each.

                  But as you note, we need a way for people to pay if they don’t have a smartphone. For now, the best approach seems to be a paybox on every block.

                2. John

                  Some cities are using scratch off type tickets for those unable to use meters or pay boxes. Portland for example has 3 hour tickets you can purchase in advance. When you want to use one, you scratch off the start time and place it on your dash. It’s then good for three hours from your scratched off start time.

      2. Nathanael

        The issue of meter inaccessibility is a different, and difficult, one, but it’s a side issue. Meter design has gotten much more accessible over the years. There should arguably be special permits for people who still can’t manage themeters.

        Most people with handicapped placards can manage typical meters. You may use a wheelchair or a cane and can’t walk very far, but you can probably put quarters into a meter.

  5. Reuben CollinsReuben Collins

    Some cities are beginning to designate on-street parking spaces for disabled parking only, both inside and outside of metered zones. This is in addition to the by-request disabled reserved spaces in front of homes. I can’t recall seeing this in the Twin Cities recently, but I anticipate it will become a thing cities do more frequently in the future, especially in unmetered commercial areas. If we require that 2% (or whatever) of privately provided parking spaces are reserved for disabled users, why wouldn’t we make the same requirement for publicly provided curbside parking spaces?

      1. John

        There are many flavors of disabled parking fraud. They can basically be boiled down into three categories:

        1. Fraudulently using an existing placard
        2. Fraudulently obtaining a placard
        3. Parking in a reserved space without a placard

        The first is most prevalent form. This includes things like using a placard of a friend or relative when they are not in the vehicle with you. Having someone with a placard with you but that person does not get out of the vehicle. Having a placard but parking in access aisles, fire lanes, etc.

        The second form consists of things like exaggerating symptoms in order to qualify, doctor shopping to find doctors willing to sign when you don’t qualify (this occurs with prescription drugs as well), doctors not taking the time to fully understand the qualifications, forging signatures, stealing placards, making fake copies, altering expiration dates, illegally purchasing placards, etc.

        The last form is your typical I’ll only be a few minutes type scenarios. Or those who blatantly just break the law.

        Each type has it’s own unique challenges when it comes to prevention. The first form the biggest challenge is enforcement. You have to actually see a person entering or exiting the vehicle in order to begin the process of determining if the placard/plates belong to them. So law enforcement rarely has the time to do this. And private citizens cannot because no public information on a placard identifies it’s owner. To help prevent this type of fraud a placard needs to include data that identifies it’s owner. Something like a photo or birth year/gender information. Then there needs to be a way for shop owners/employee’s or trained public volunteers to report violations. In addition, fines and penalties need to be increased with repeat offenses escalating the fine/penalties.

        Preventing the second form of fraud will require mostly dealing with the process of obtaining a placard. The process currently is pretty much just an honor based system. The DVS does not check to see if the information is valid it only checks to see if the information is complete. This entire process needs some form of checks and audits. And auto renewals without requiring a doctors signature needs to be eliminated. Lastly, the eligibility criteria needs to be more concise where something like severely limited walking is objectively defined rather than being subjective as it is today.

        The last form is mostly an enforcement and fine/penalties issue. Here again, involving the shop owners/employee’s and/or trained public volunteers is required.

        1. Nathanael

          The biggest issue here is that making handicapped spaces cheaper than other spaces invites fraud.

          If the handicapped spaces cost the same as other spaces, a lot of the fraudsters just vanish — they no longer bother to commit fraud.

          1. John

            I agree that making handicapped spaces cheaper invites fraud. However, I firmly disagree the fraudsters will no longer bother to commit fraud.

            They will l continue to commit fraud at the Mall, at Target, at Walmart, at the Grocery Store, in the parking ramp/garage, etc. All your really doing is removing a location where they can commit fraud.

            You could get the same results in a private parking lot by simply removing all the designated handicap parking stalls. As soon as you did, all the fraudsters would just vanish.

            In either case you have done little to solve the actual fraud. You simply just decriminalized it.

  6. Nathanael

    In Ithaca, NY, we have the usual handicapped spaces in every block.

    *They are metered just like all the other spaces*.

    This eliminates most of the abuse.

    I’m quite conscious of this because my fiancee has severe arthritis in the knees and can’t walk very far. It’s important to be able to park close to our destination when we drive. However, we can afford to feed the meter like everyone else.

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