Defrauding disabled parking

Parking code enforcement officer Gary Shervey checks the number on a disability placard on Southwest Taylor Street. Shervey can determine if the placard is valid and in the right vehicle, but not whether its owner is truly disabled. Undated photo. (Jaime Valdez/Portland Tribune)
Parking code enforcement officer Gary Shervey checks the number on a disability placard on Southwest Taylor Street. Shervey can determine if the placard is valid and in the right vehicle, but not whether its owner is truly disabled. Undated photo. (Jaime Valdez/Portland Tribune)

One day, last October, the Portland Bureau of Transportation counted 1,007 cars with disabled parking permits parked in metered spaces in Portland’s downtown and Lloyd Center. That means one out of every nine on-street parking spaces in the city’s central shopping area was not yielding revenue, since owners of disabled parking permits are allowed to park free on the street for as long as they want.

More important, according to national parking experts, those parking spaces were not providing the service for which they were intended — temporary parking for shoppers as they visit stores and then move on, freeing their spaces for someone else. Most of those disabled drivers left their cars parked on the street all or most of the day.

The proliferation of disabled parking permits has long been a problem in Portland, and the focus of a number of studies and recommendations that have failed to yield results. A 2009 city task force report found that 20 percent of parked cars in the downtown retail core had disabled placards.

Downtown parking garages have plenty of spaces set aside for disabled drivers, but they're rarely used as drivers opt for free parking at curbside meters. Undated photo. (Jaime Valdez/Portland Tribune)
Downtown parking garages have plenty of spaces set aside for disabled drivers, but they’re rarely used as drivers opt for free parking at curbside meters. Undated photo. (Jaime Valdez/Portland Tribune)

But new studies by national transportation experts show that the solution to Portland’s parking problem is remarkably simple: All the city has to do is require disabled drivers to pay for their parking spaces, like everybody else.

Oregon’s Department of Motor Vehicles reports it has issued 354,147 disabled parking placards. There are no firm guidelines for getting a disabled permit — all you need is a physician’s signature. Pregnant women get them, people with asthma get them, and patients with doctors who don’t want to lose patients get them, according to the experts.

Trying to take on abuse of disabled permits has proven impossible, despite studies from other cities showing that more than half of disabled placards are being used fraudulently. But the experts say there’s no need. Their studies — and experiences of cities that have followed their recommendations — show that once drivers with disabled placards are required to pay at metered spaces, they often find someplace else to park.

A Raleigh solution?

Disabled parking is upsetting the entire delicately balanced city parking system, says Michael Manville, professor of city planning at Cornell University and co-author of “The Price Doesn’t Matter if You Don’t Have to Pay: Legal Exemption and Market-Priced Parking.”

Manville is among a group of transportation experts who believe market pricing solves most on-street parking problems. Cities should charge more where on-street parking is scarce and less where spaces are plentiful. The idea is to find the right price for every neighborhood so that there will always be one or two open spaces on each block.

Manville and co-author Jonathan Williams sent researchers throughout downtown Los Angeles and discovered on average six of 10 metered spaces were occupied, but one in four of the parked cars displayed a disabled placard and had not paid.

Vehicles without a disabled parking placard parked for an average of 32 minutes before moving. Vehicles with the placards averaged four hours and took up almost 40 percent of all meter hours.

“When you don’t have to pay, you stay longer,” Manville says.

He says the state of Michigan had about a half-million residents with placards until it decided only people who could prove they were severely disabled — wheelchair users, for instance — would be able to use their placards for free parking. Only 10,000 residents applied for the new status.

“It certainly suggests that the vast majority of placard holders in Michigan were not suffering from severe disabilities,” Manville says.

And, he says, the truly disabled are suffering more than anybody from the current situation. They are less likely to find parking spots in front of shops they visit because the spots are taken up by other placard holders.

Paying for parking will help them, Manville asserts, adding that just because people have disabilities doesn’t mean they are impoverished.

In 2010, Raleigh, N.C., decided to start requiring disabled permit drivers to pay at meters in select downtown neighborhoods after shop owners complained their customers couldn’t find on-street parking.

Raleigh charges $1 an hour for parking but its meters have been configured so people with disabled placards can pay $9 and get nine hours of parking even in spaces otherwise designated for one- or two-hour maximum stays.

Cars with placards practically disappeared from the streets once the change was made, says Gordon Dash, Raleigh’s parking administrator. Actually, they didn’t exactly disappear, but moved to another neighborhood where parking is
free all day. The drivers, Dash says, are mostly downtown store employees who are willing to walk the extra distance to work.

“That pretty much tells me these were not people who rightfully owned those placards,” Dash says.

But charging for disabled parking solved the problem. “The financial incentive is gone, there’s very little, if any, abuse,” Dash says.

And Dash says he hears not only from pleased store owners, but also from people with severe disabilities thanking him because they can find parking spots where they need them.

More available parking

Joe VanderVeer, a member of the Portland Commission on Disability, says he would support a Raleigh-like solution in Portland because it provides extra parking time for those with disabilities. The commission has rejected previous proposals aimed at reducing fraudulent use of disability placards.

Oregon City started requiring payment from disabled drivers two years ago after discovering that drivers with disabled parking placards were parking all day at spots intended for shoppers.

“The businesses can’t survive without turnover,” says Nancy Busch, Oregon City code enforcement manager.

Every workday, Busch says, about 40 spots around the downtown county courthouse were filled with cars displaying placards. She’s pretty certain most of those cars belonged to government workers who were saving on the $100-a-month parking rate at nearby lots.

Now Oregon City charges $1 an hour for those courthouse spaces, and drivers with disabled parking placards are required to stay no longer than one hour, like everybody else. A block away, four-hour meters are available, but disabled drivers also are limited to four hours there.

The result?

“There’s so much more available parking,” Busch says. “There’s available parking on every block now that it’s enforced.”

A ‘free ride’ with disabled parking permit? Maybe, but it’s tough to enforce

Gary Shervey knows for a fact that there are dead people in Portland whose disabled parking placards are still in use.

Shervey, parking code enforcement officer for the Portland Bureau of Transportation, has walked the downtown parking beat for 16 years. When he comes across a car displaying a placard at a metered space he calls in the placard number so a dispatcher can verify that it’s being used legally by the owner of the car.

Occasionally the dispatcher informs Shervey that the owner of the placard he’s looking at has died. That prompts Shervey to place a $720 citation on the vehicle’s windshield. But that doesn’t mean that whoever is using the dead person’s placard will have to pay.

Shervey says he once issued a citation to a woman using a placard of a dead person, and then he appeared in court to testify in the case. The woman who had used the placard testified that yes, she was using her dead husband’s placard, and yes, he had died two years previously, but that seeing the placard comforted her.

“It reminded her of her husband,” Shervey recalls. He also recalls the judge’s response — he voided the ticket.

A downtown tour with Shervey can be enlightening. Especially when Shervey approaches City Hall or the county courthouse, where he sees many of the same cars with disabled placards parked every day.

“Some days you go, ‘Oh my gosh, the whole block is disabled,’ ” Shervey says.

He calls blocks near government offices “hot spots.” And he says he rarely confronts drivers who are using disabled placards because most of their cars sit in place all day.

Southwest Taylor Street between Third and Fourth avenues is one of those regular hot spots, Shervey says. On a Thursday morning there are seven cars parked in a row, all with disabled placards. Parking spaces on Fourth Avenue around Washington and Alder streets also are mostly occupied by cars with disabled parking permits. The Alder, which provides low-income housing, sits on Fourth Avenue.

Shervey sees people walking from cars they have parked with disabled parking placards but he is not allowed to question drivers about their disabilities. He can only phone in the placard numbers and license plates to see if the placards are valid and if the right people are using them.

Portland issues about 200 citations a year for placard violations.

When Shervey comes across a Washington state disabled placard he calls that in, too, for a check. But other out-of-state placards he gives a pass. Portland, unlike some cities, honors placards from out of state, which cannot be checked for validity.

In front of Geraldi’s on 4th, a sandwich shop across from The Alder, Matt Weiler says he has seen a car with a disabled placard parked on Fourth Avenue for four or five days in a row without moving.

Ironically, Weiler, who says he is a co-owner of Geraldi’s, parks his own Toyota 4-Runner on the street in front of his restaurant every day, arriving before 8 a.m. and leaving in the late afternoon. And yes, he has a disabled parking placard.

Geraldi’s other owner, Joanne Wojciechowski, suffers from pain in her foot related to gout and tendinitis, and Weiler drives her in each day and keeps the car out front, even acknowledging he’s potentially keeping it from use by his restaurant’s customers. He could, he says, drop Wojciechowski off at the restaurant and park the car in a nearby lot, where there are plenty of disabled parking spaces all lined up, almost all of them empty.

Weiler agrees with experts that maintaining free unlimited parking is contributing to the glut of disabled parking permits he sees along Fourth Avenue.

“They’re looking for a free ride,” he says. “There are a lot of people doing that here.”

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