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  • 21 Dec 2014

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Our Opinion: To curb parking abuse, charge everyone

No one knows for sure just how many people in Portland are obtaining disabled-parking permits even when they don’t really need them.

Based on anecdotal as well as quantitative evidence, it would appear to be a large number — and they are contributing heavily to the on-street parking shortage in downtown Portland.

It takes a lot of gall to abuse a privilege that’s supposed to be reserved for those who actually have disabilities or very serious illnesses. Our first instinct is to say the city or state should crack down on these abusers, but it turns out there is a simpler solution: charging everyone — disabled placard or not — for metered parking.

As reported in the July 11 Portland Tribune, the use — and, likely, overuse — of disabled parking permits is clogging up available parking in downtown Portland. On a typical day, up to 20 percent of on-street parking in the city’s central shopping area will be occupied by a car with a disabled permit.

The attraction of these permits is obvious. Portland allows cars displaying such placards to park at metered spaces for free. Permit holders also are allowed to stay in those spots indefinitely.

If a person is truly disabled, of course, a parking permit is a necessary tool to conduct everyday business. Many permit holders, however, have acquired disabled-parking placards based on dubious reasons.

Code enforcement officers encounter evidence of abuse on a daily basis. They discover people who are using the permits of dead relatives, or people who leave their cars parked on the street for hours. Obviously, they aren’t shopping for such prolonged periods of time. Yet, the main purpose of metered parking is to serve the needs of retail businesses and their customers.

In other cities, when authorities have taken more aggressive steps to weed out abusers, they’ve found that a surprisingly large number of people driving with disabled permits didn’t really need them. Such abuse of the system punishes people who truly are disabled. It also is unfair to everyone else who plays by the rules.

The best way to curb abuse, however, doesn’t involve the government delving into people’s medical histories to find out if they have a truly disabling condition. That approach would be invasive and impractical.

Other cities have found it’s not necessary to expose the frauds. Instead, places such as Raleigh, N.C., have begun to charge for metered, on-street parking. They still allow people who have disability permits to park for as long as they need to, but once a city begins to charge everyone for parking, the incentive for abuse is removed. People capable of walking a few blocks will find cheaper off-street parking. That will free up on-street parking for both the general population and for people who are truly disabled.

In Portland, a pleasant side effect of this change would be relief for downtown stores that are losing customers due to a chronic parking shortage. City Commissioner Steve Novick, who recently took charge of the Portland Bureau of Transportation, ought to give serious consideration to a small change in policy that can have a positive impact on the downtown retail environment.