Portland Makes Curbside Parking Easier By Taking Away Free Spots

It’s a lot easier now to find a parking space in Portland.

Photo: Incandesenser on Flickr
Reducing the number of free-parking placards increased Portland’s parking supply. Photo: Incandesenser on Flickr

According to city records, available on-street parking spaces have increased about 10 percent since this summer, which among other benefits will probably bring millions in revenue to the city.

How did they do it? By reforming a permit program for motorists with disabilities, which reduced the number of drivers who may park for free.

The city’s old parking policy allowed those with a disabled placard to park anywhere, all day, at no cost. But there’s a lot of evidence that the system was being taken advantage of by able-bodied parking cheaters. Joe Cortright writing at City Observatory writes:

In an apparent epidemic of frailty, the number of handicapped permits in use in downtown Portland almost doubled between 2007 and 2012. In September 2013, handicapped placard users occupied fully 1,000 of the central city’s 8,000 metered on street spaces.

Last July the city of Portland changed the rules. Rather than allow those with placards to park anywhere, it created 105 designated parking spaces for motorists with disabilities. Permit parking will remain free.

Judging by city data the new policy is working. Cortright writes:

Overnight, the parking landscape in downtown Portland changed. Spaces occupied by placard users dropped 70%. Getting the price right freed up 720 parking spots for other, paying users, expanding the effective supply of parking by nearly 10%.

The change is even more remarkable in the heart of the central business district. I looked at the six most central parking beats in the city — for those familiar with Portland, an area bounded by Burnside Street on the north, the Willamette River on the east, Jefferson and Market Streets on the south, and 10th and 11th Avenues on the west. (These are beats 1,2,3,4,6 and 11.) This area contains a total of about 1,850 on-street metered parking spaces. A year ago, 450 spaces — nearly a quarter of them — were occupied by vehicles with handicapped placards. That’s fallen to 105 placard users — a reduction of 75 percent from the free-parking era. This is the equivalent of adding about 350 parking spaces to the supply of street parking in the heart of downtown Portland.

Not only will it make it easier to park, potentially helping local businesses, the new policy could generate an additional $1.4 million a year in parking revenue, Cortright says. This sounds like a reform other cities dealing with disabled parking placard abuse would be wise to consider.

  • Dan

    This is not politically correct, but I don’t care. I question the proliferation of handicap parking stickers, which used to be rare, for individuals whose only apparently disability is obesity. I do not view one’s lifestyle choices (to eat too many calories and drive all day) as something to be rewarded with superior car parking. It used to be only the “truly” disabled, such as paralyzed or elderly and frail, were considered handicap. Now the self chosen obese freely roam wal-mart and Disney world with their electric (not even self propelled any longer) wheelchairs. Ridiculous.

  • Bruce

    This kind of reform is DESPERATELY needed in San Francisco, where disabled placard abuse is rampant.

  • mike_napolis_beard

    Totally. But change is needed first at the state level; current California state law forbids cities from charging those with disabled placards for parking. SFMTA actually went through a pretty intensive process to develop accessible parking recommendations: http://sfpark.org/how-it-works/accessible-parking-policy/

  • Ben Schonberger

    The key to the success of this reform was that it addressed cheating at the parking meter, not at the doctor’s office. There are too many dishonest “patients” out there with too many compliant doctors/naturopaths giving out placards–all protected by health care privacy regulations–that you will never expose the cheaters at that stage. In Portland, there are still lots of disabled permits, but the utility of having one just dropped through the floor.

    Another reason to move to Portland: small changes in parking policy can cause an incredible, miracle-at-Lourdes wave of healing!

  • C Monroe

    About a decade ago, Lansing, Michigan had a problem at meters near the state HQs of the Secretary of State of Michigan. They had no empty spots but made no money from the meters. The reason, free parking for those with handicap placards at city meters. The Secretary of State was the agency who issued the placards and its staff was abusing it. The solution- the city no longer allowed free parking for those with handicap placards, they did though create a few handicap spots with meters and made those easier to use. Now it easy to get a spot there.

  • brian ws

    How do you call this abuse though? The law allowed free and unlimited parking and the number of placards in circulation greatly increases each year. These were people simply using the privilege afforded to them.

    The real policy question for other states is how does it make sense to give 15% of the population (and increasing each year) free and unlimited parking? Setting aside emotion and sensitivity, the numbers simply don’t add up anymore. I once read that LA has seven legal valid placards for every paid parking space. There might have been a time for free unlimited parking, but that time has passed.

  • crazyvag

    Why does parking have to be free with a handicapped placard? Gas stations don’t have to provide free gas? That one aspect would go a long way.

  • Strangely enough it was Amiano who killed parking placard reform after the SFMTA crafted a broadly based and reasonable strategy. I would love to hear him explain his reasoning.

  • neroden

    In most places, it’s NOT free.

    Handicapped placards are supposed to ensure that handicapped people can park close to the door of their destination (for instance, in the same block). This is very important for people with mobility impairments. If there are a lot of people who really need handicapped parking in a given block, the solution is to make more and more spaces exclusive to placard-holders, eliminating general-purpose parking — able-bodied people can park further away and walk a few blocks.

    Making the parking free just encourages scammers to get placards. It therefore makes it harder to reserve the key “near the door” spaces for handicapped people. Handicapped parking should really cost the same as all other parking.

    There can be some practical problems if the meters are not handicapped-accessible, which is the only reasonable justification for making it free. This affects a really small number of handicapped people, however, whereas a *lot* of people with mobility impairments genuinely need to park close to their destination.

  • neroden

    Obesity can be induced by a lot of other disabilities (it’s a drug side effect in some cases). Don’t judge.

    On the other hand, don’t give them free parking. Free parking seems to attract scammers.


Portland Tackled Disabled Parking Placard Abuse, and It’s Working

Disabled parking placards used to be ubiquitous in Portland. Until very recently, the city provided unlimited free street parking to placard holders, estimated at a $2,000 annual value. Many cars bearing these placards would remain in prime spots for weeks or months without moving. In some parts of the city, cars with placards would occupy 20 percent or […]

How Parking Permits Can Improve the Politics of Walkable Development

Residential parking permits are often referred to as “hunting licenses” because while they grant permit holders the privilege of parking on the street, there’s usually no limit to how many permits can be issued. If there are more permits in a neighborhood than available on-street parking spaces, there’s still going to be a parking crunch […]

Resolved: More Driving for Teachers, Less for Everyone Else

Another DOE employee not abusing a parking placard, courtesy Uncivil Servants Following United Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten’s "deeply troubling" letter to Mayor Bloomberg earlier this month protesting the city’s directive to reduce parking placard issues by 20 percent, this week UFT chapter leaders and delegates approved a resolution not only demanding an exemption […]

Seattle’s Plan to Woo Neighborhoods Into Adopting Smart Parking Prices

Seattle has a housing affordability problem. One way to address that is to reduce the amount of parking required in new residential buildings, lowering construction costs and increasing the number of apartments that can be built. But it’s politically difficult to reduce parking requirements because current residents who own cars worry it will make parking more scarce. As long as […]

Curb Appeal

Alan Durning is the executive director of Sightline. This post is #15 in the Sightline series, Parking? Lots! Imagine if you could put a meter in front of your house and charge every driver who parks in “your” space. It’d be like having a cash register at the curb. Free money! How much would you collect? Hundreds […]