Transportation Systems Casebook/Handicapped Parking


Federal regulations surrounding handicapped parking were first introduced in 1990, when President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law. The ADA prohibits unjustified discrimination based on disability, and specifically recognizes the importance of eliminating structural and architectural barriers by requiring all new or altered facilities subject to the ADA to be readily accessible to and usable by people with disabilities.

Though this federal regulation exists, handicapped parking is regulated and enforced at the state level, usually by state Departments of Motor Vehicles (DMVs) or by state Departments of Transportation (DOTs). In an effort both to facilitate compliance with all applicable laws and to mitigate the tension between federal and state enforcement processes, the ADA authorizes the Department of Justice, upon request of state or local officials, to certify that state or local accessibility laws meet or exceed the requirements of the ADA.[1] Each state sets its own criteria for "qualifying disabilities", or the disabilities that qualify for special disabled parking placards or handicapped license plates, making management difficult. There are a number of policy issues and strategies surrounding the enforcement of handicapped parking at the state and local levels, discussed in greater detail below.

Annotated List of ActorsEdit

ADA National Network: Funded by the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research, the ADA National Network provides information, guidance, and training on how to implement the ADA in order to support the mission of the ADA, to "assure equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities." The network consists of ten regional ADA centers located throughout the United States, as well as an ADA Knowledge Translation Center.[2]

Disabled Persons: An individual with a disability is defined by the ADA as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment. The ADA does not specifically name all of the impairments that are covered.[3]

State Departments of Transportation (DOT): Policy and regulation of parking for persons with disabilities.

State Departments of Motor Vehicles (DMV): Agency tasked with issuing permanent and temporary placards, placards for institutions, and license plates for people with permanent and military-related disabilities.

President George H.W. Bush: signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law on July 26, 1990.

The Media: Public outreach and bringing awareness to the handicapped parking issues.

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ): issued new regulations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 2010; and is responsible for the following as they pertain to the ADA:

  • Technical Assistance: The ADA requires the DOJ to provide technical assistance to businesses, State and local governments, and individuals with rights or responsibilities under the law. The Department provides education and technical assistance through a variety of means to encourage voluntary compliance. Activities include providing direct technical assistance and guidance to the public through this ADA Website and the ADA Information Line, developing and disseminating technical assistance materials to the public, and undertaking outreach initiatives[4];
  • Enforcement: The DOJ may file lawsuits in federal court to enforce the ADA, and courts may order compensatory damages and back pay to remedy discrimination if the Department prevails[5];
  • Mediation: Through its ADA Mediation Program, the DOJ refers appropriate ADA disputes to mediators at no cost to the parties. The mediators in the Department of Justice program are professional mediators who have been trained in the legal requirements of the ADA[6];
  • Regulation: The ADA requires that the Department write regulations for implementing[7]; and,
  • Certification of State and Local Accessibility Requirements: The ADA specifically recognizes the importance of eliminating structural and architectural barriers by requiring all new or altered facilities subject to the ADA to be readily accessible to and usable by people with disabilities. Covered entities must comply with the Department's ADA regulations, including the ADA Standards for Accessible Design. In an effort both to facilitate compliance with all applicable laws and to mitigate the tension between federal and state enforcement processes, the ADA authorizes the Department of Justice, upon request of state or local officials, to certify that state or local accessibility laws meet or exceed the requirements of the ADA[1].

Timeline of Events[8]Edit

1950: The earliest law providing for “handicapped” parking was Delaware’s 1955 Code 2134.

1960: Protections for handicapped citizens spawned from the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s. While no legislation directly concerning civil rights was passed during that decade, it laid the groundwork for future legislation because civil rights dealt with preventing discrimination and making accommodations for equal rights and access.

1968: After passage of the Architectural Barriers Act, the federal government mandated parking spaces, signage, and curb cuts. The universal access symbol, associated with physical accessibility, also debuted that year.

1973: The first handicapped parking stickers were introduced in Washington, D.C.

1988: Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1698, prohibiting discrimination in housing on the basis of race, religion, national origin, and gender, but it was not until 1988 that the need for legislation to protect handicapped citizens was recognized. It was then that people with disabilities were added to Title VIII.

September 1989: The Senate passes their version of the American with Disabilities Act (ADA)

May 1990: The House of Representatives pass their version of the ADA.

July 1990: President George H.W. Bush signed the ADA into law. Within the law is Section 4.6, Parking and Passenger Loading Zones. It is this section that set into motion the creation of parking spaces reserved for handicapped drivers. The law determined that the spaces needed to be on the shortest route to an entrance, which meant that they were the closest spaces to the business. It also determined that the spaces needed to be wider than regular parking spaces with an aisle next to them, that the spaces cannot be on a steep slope, and need to be designed as handicapped parking.[9]

Maps of LocationsEdit

Accessible Parking spaces Standards

Red Top Meters Locations - DC

Blue Zone Parking Census Map - San Francisco

Clear Identification of Policy IssuesEdit

Policy IssuesEdit

Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 (42 U.S.C. 12181-12189) prohibits the discrimination on the basis of disability by public accommodations. It requires government buildings and public and commercial facilities to be designed, constructed, and altered in compliance with the accessibility standards it has established.[10]

In 2010, the Department of Justice published revised regulations that adopted enforceable accessibility standards, called the 2010 ADA Standard for Accessible Design. These regulations set the minimum requirements for newly designed and constructed or altered state and local government facilities, public accommodations, and commercial facilities to be readily accessible for disabled people.[11] With no grandfather exception to the ADA Act (1990), Handicapped Parking is fairly easier to accommodate and typically involves striping and signage.[12]

Handicapped Parking AbuseEdit

Handicapped parking provides accessible and proximate parking for individuals with disabilities, but it is often the case that parking privileges are abused by persons who do not meet state qualification criteria and who simply do not want to walk from a more distant spot[13].

Beginning approximately in the 1970s, many states began offering unlimited free on-street parking to holders of disabled parking permits (placards, licensed plates, and tabs), because parking meters were thought to be hard to access for disabled people, and were considered an impediment to independence and mobility.[14] Incentives such as unlimited free parking have proved to encourage widespread abuse and fraudulent behavior of handicapped parking permits. Furthermore, there is a lack of repercussions for those found to be in violation of handicapped parking, because punishment is marginal and enforcement seldom occurs. Handicapped parking abuse results in a deficiency of available handicapped parking spaces required by people with real disabilities, who rely on them to accomplish their everyday jobs. Handicapped parking abuse has two main forms:[15]

  1. A person who is not disabled parking in a handicapped parking space.
  2. A person who is not disabled but somehow managed to obtain a placard by loan or other means.

In California, 10% of all drivers carry handicapped parking placards. An estimated 30% of those may be considered cases of fraudulent use. Most state-issued handicapped parking stickers and dashboard tags don’t have expiration dates and are not attached to a specific vehicle, which encourages sharing between family members and friends. Disabled people may be unable to find appropriate parking due to placard abuse. For example, the State of California issued 2.1 million handicapped placards in 2011. In Los Angeles only, there are at least six times as many residents with disabled parking privileges as there are parking meters. In return, only 11 tickets for placard abuse were issued by the Los Angeles DOT. The citation for placard abuse can range anywhere from $250 to $1000.[16]

Enforcement StrategiesEdit

Handicapped parking abuse takes away accessible parking for disabled individuals who genuinely need it. The abuse is also responsible for loss of revenue in cities and towns across the country, and can negatively impact businesses in the area, as many states allow unlimited free on-street parking for disabled drivers.

Handicapped parking management is regulated at the state level. Listed below are common enforcement strategies:

  • Elimination or limitation of the meter-fee exemption: Unlimited, free-metered parking seems to encourage abuse, sometimes by handicapped persons (who park for extended periods of time), but also by others who may borrow a placard or obtain one by fraudulent means. Another suggestion would be to grant the meter-fee exemption to specific placard holders who are physically unable to reach a parking kiosk or insert coins into a meter[17].
  • Volunteers: A number of states have implemented volunteer parking enforcement training programs for citizens who are interested in ensuring that handicapped parking will remain available for those who need it. Once the proper training is complete, volunteers are empowered to issue citations to those who abuse disabled parking spaces.[18] For example, the city of Asheville, South Carolina issued approximately 900 handicapped parking citations in 2013, 80% of which were issued by volunteers.[19]
  • Enforcement of Time Limits is a technique used by many city governments nationwide and has the following benefits:
  1. Restricts employees from using curbside parking and encourages off-street parking and other long term arrangements;
  2. Minimizes drivers circling around in search of a parking spot, which negatively impacts air quality, by providing convenient curbside parking spaces; and,
  3. Ensures the optimum use of valuable city parking and its availability for short-term parking users. [20]
  • Boot Technique: The boot is a device used nationwide on illegally parked vehicles. It is designed to immobilize a vehicle without causing damage to the vehicle. In many states, a vehicle becomes boot-eligible after one delinquent citation for parking in a handicapped zone. Once booted,
  • Report to State DMVs or Localities by providing license plate and placards number. This technique often comes with the challenge that not all placards holders will have a visible physical disability (see enforcement challenges, below). A number of apps and websites, such as, have been developed to assist with reporting improperly parked vehicles without confronting the offender.[21]
  • Identify the Misuse of Placards as a Breach of Law: An increasing number of states, including Massachusetts and Washington State, are utilizing this approach.
  • Educating not only healthcare providers and the public, but also offenders. Issuing warnings first, followed by tickets and steep fines for secondary offenders is thought to be effective, according to the Council on Disabilities, City of Seattle.[22] A number of websites exist to increase awareness of handicapped parking and its enforcement. [23]

Enforcement ChallengesEdit

  • Privacy: Many disabilities are not physically and immediately visible, making it difficult for law enforcement officials to detect handicapped parking abuse. Questioning and investigation by law enforcement can be seen as harassment or a privacy violation.
  • Prioritization of Police Priorities: Enforcing handicapped parking regulations tends not to be a high priority for law enforcement officials, who are busy responding to issues of more importance of criminal and traffic violation nature. Similarly, people may be hesitant to call 9-1-1 to report a handicapped parking violation for fear of tying up the line in case of an emergency, and because it is seen as a low-priority use of a police officer's time.
  • Environmental Issues: Numerous urban planning studies show that the shortage of available parking in cities negatively impacts air quality and the environment. This is caused mainly by increased traffic from drivers looking for parking from one street to another. A study titled “The Abuse of Disability Parking Placards in Massachusetts,” conducted by the Office of the Inspector General in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts found that “drivers in Cambridge, Massachusetts spent an average of 11.5 minutes searching for parking, or a 30% share of their traffic cruising. According to the study, this results in greater congestion and increased pollution.”[24]

Narrative of the CaseEdit

History of Handicapped Parking in the United StatesEdit

Protections for handicapped persons stemmed from the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s.  Though handicapped persons were not explicitly included as a protected class of citizens under any of the major pieces of Civil Rights legislation passed during that decade, the new laws dealt with preventing discrimination and making accommodations for equal access for all people. 

Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 prohibited discrimination in housing on the basis of race, religion, national origin, and gender.  In 1988, Title VIII was amended to include handicapped citizens as well. During this same year, the first version of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was introduced to Congress.  A second, amended version was introduced the following year.  The Senate passed their version on September 9, 1989 and the House passed its version on May 22, 1990.  The two versions of the bill were reconciled into one comprehensive bill and on July 26, 1990 President George H.W. Bush signed the ADA into law. Section 4.6 of the ADA set the legal basis for the creation and maintenance of handicapped parking spaces.

Section 4.6 of the ADA, Parking and Passenger Loading Zones, states the following:

4.6.1 Minimum Number. Parking spaces required to be accessible by 4.1 shall comply with 4.6.2 through 4.6.5. Passenger loading zones required to be accessible by 4.1 shall comply with 4.6.5 and 4.6.6.

4.6.2 Location. Accessible parking spaces serving a particular building shall be located on the shortest accessible route of travel from adjacent parking to an accessible entrance. In parking facilities that do not serve a particular building, accessible parking shall be located on the shortest accessible route of travel to an accessible pedestrian entrance of the parking facility. In buildings with multiple accessible entrances with adjacent parking, accessible parking spaces shall be dispersed and located closest to the accessible entrances.

4.6.3* Parking Spaces. Accessible parking spaces shall be at least 96 in (2440 mm) wide. Parking access aisles shall be part of an accessible route to the building or facility entrance and shall comply with 4.3. Two accessible parking spaces may share a common access aisle (see Fig. 9). Parked vehicle overhangs shall not reduce the clear width of an accessible route. Parking spaces and access aisles shall be level with surface slopes not exceeding 1:50 (2%) in all directions.

4.6.4* Signage. Accessible parking spaces shall be designated as reserved by a sign showing the symbol of accessibility (see 4.30.7). Spaces complying with 4.1.2(5)(b) shall have an additional sign "Van-Accessible" mounted below the symbol of accessibility. Such signs shall be located so they cannot be obscured by a vehicle parked in the space.

4.6.5* Vertical Clearance. Provide minimum vertical clearance of 114 in (2895 mm) at accessible passenger loading zones and along at least one vehicle access route to such areas from site entrance(s) and exit(s). At parking spaces complying with 4.1.2(5)(b), provide minimum vertical clearance of 98 in (2490 mm) at the parking space and along at least one vehicle access route to such spaces from site entrance(s) and exit(s).

4.6.6 Passenger Loading Zones. Passenger loading zones shall provide an access aisle at least 60 in (1525 mm) wide and 20 ft (240 in)(6100 mm) long adjacent and parallel to the vehicle pull-up space. If there are curbs between the access aisle and the vehicle pull-up space, then a curb ramp complying with 4.7 shall be provided. Vehicle standing spaces and access aisles shall be level with surface slopes not exceeding 1:50 (2%) in all directions.[25]

Qualifying for Handicapped ParkingEdit

Each state sets its own criteria for "qualifying disabilities", or the disabilities that qualify for special disabled parking placards or handicapped license plates. Most states consider drivers disabled if they:

  • Do not have full use of one or both arms;
  • Cannot walk a set number of feet without stopping to rest;
  • Cannot walk without using a cane, crutch, brace, prosthetic device, wheelchair, or the assistance of another person;
  • Have a Class III or Class IV cardiac condition, as set by the American Heart Association;
  • Must have portable oxygen to walk;
  • Have a visual acuity of 20/200 or less in the better eye with correcting lenses; or,
  • Have a visual acuity of 20/200 but with a limited field of vision in which the widest diameter of the visual field subtends an angle of 20 degrees or less.

Case StudiesEdit

Washington DC:Edit

One of the greatest challenges faced by the District of Columbia is the widespread abuse of placards associated with free meter-parking. An audit conducted by the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) for a block in the Central Business District (CBD) revealed that 31 out of 34 parked cars had placards displayed, or 91% of all parked vehicles. As a result, the Red Top Meters program is being introduced to mitigate the situation. Red Top Meters are parking meters with a distinctive red top that are accessible and are reserved for the exclusive use of persons with disabilities. They offer two options for payment: at the meter by coin or credit card, or by phone using Parkmobile app, the District’s pay-by-phone service. Persons with disabilities will be allowed to pay for parking twice the time limit allocated for adjacent regular meters. The Red Top Meter Program will be implemented within the CBD in early 2017, and serve two purposes:

  • Provide persons with disabilities greater access to curbside parking in the high demand, congested CBD area by setting aside reserved, accessible parking meters; and,
  • Enable DDOT and the Department of Public Works to equitably manage the limited available curbside space in high demand parking areas within the CBD by encouraging parking turnover at metered spaces. [26] [27] [28]

Anyone can park at the red top meters until they are officially implemented in 2017. The program was initially launched in 2012 and faced a lot of criticism and confusion, mainly due to installation occurring before there was a statutory authority to inforce the program; the inadequate distribution of the meters installed; and accessibility issues, as some were not accessible for persons with disabilities. Both issues should have been addressed by the new program.[29]

New York State:Edit

New York has two types of permits for citizens with disabilities, a New York State permit and New York City permit.

  1. The New York State parking permit is a blue plastic hang-tag. The permit is valid all over New York State where there are designated parking spaces for people with disabilities. In New York City, these spaces are all off-street, such as in parking lots for shopping malls, office buildings, or university campuses. In addiction to the permit, the state offers a metered parking waiver. The metered parking waiver allows the holder to park in a metered parking space in any city, town, or village of New York State (except New York City) without paying the meter fee.
  2. The New York City permit is a placard that can have several license plates associated with it. The permit holder must move the permit to whichever vehicle he or she is using at the time as there are no copies allowed. The City permit allows the driver to park along most curbsides on city streets, including in all “No Parking” zones, and at metered parking without paying, except for those marked with taxi stands.[30]

State of California:Edit

California Vehicle Code 4461 VC prohibits the misuse of disability parking placards, and violators could be charged with a misdemeanor if convicted of illegal use of a disabled placard, and could face jail time. But despite the strict laws, the abuse is very pervasive statewide. It is fairly easy to legally obtain a placard in California. All what an individual needs is to fill out the application form and have it signed by a physician. Some claim that they could even be obtained from eBay or Craigslist. The qualifying criteria are broader and health matters like depression could grant a disabled parking placard if authorized by a physician. In 2014, the California DMV launched a unique type of enforcement called “Operation Blue Zone” in the City of San Francisco. For instance, the DMV investigators targeted perpetrators in the early stage of application and searched disability parking applications for irregularities, like having the same diagnosis or false diagnosis, or same handwriting and signature by the same physician. The investigation, which was prompted by citizen complaints, was successful in catching fraud placard applications in the area. [31] [32] [33] [34]

Discussion QuestionsEdit

  1. Is the responsibility of issuing and enforcing handicapped parking placards and plates best left to state governments and DMVs, or would the federal government do a better job of this? What are the pros and cons of each?
  2. Which enforcement strategy do you feel is the most effective? Can you think of any other enforcement strategies that should be implemented?
  3. Could technologies such as finger printing scanners be the answer to today's challenges in managing handicapped parking?

Additional ReadingsEdit

The Abuse of Disability Parking Placards in Massachusetts

Implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act: Challenges, Best Practices, and New Opportunities for Success


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