Responding to a media story and grumblings from both public and private interests, Mayor Mike McGinn recently reversed a city policy that prevented vacant parking lots adjacent to the Sound Transit light-rail line from being used for parking by commuters.
The city had prohibited placement of auto-related business and parking garages within a half-mile of light-rail stations as well as imposing restrictive parking in residential areas adjacent to the rail corridor. To his credit, McGinn, realizing that light-rail ridership was far below expectations, exercised common sense and opened the door a little, allowing some of the empty lots to offer daily parking.
McGinn has another great opportunity to right a wrong in a punitive-parking regulation. A policy proposal generated by staff under former Seattle transportation chief Grace Crunican has the city preparing to restrict parking for the handicapped near health-care facilities and a few other dense areas of the city. The proposed policy is one way to deal with increasing numbers of handicapped people using the available parking. The city says this approach will reduce abuse "that limits access to parking for legitimate" holders of permits.
With a growing number of veterans coming home with limbs blown off by IEDs and a revolution in devices like motorized wheelchairs and prosthetic devices, more handicapped people are mobile and driving to treatment centers. Handicapped people, in general, who were once cloistered in their homes, are now pursuing more active lives, partly because of new medical technology. Some, once dependent on public assistance, are taking full-time jobs and driving to work.
At the same time, the once-vigorous boomer generation is growing older. They are now getting hip and knee replacements and taking advantage of more sophisticated orthopedic treatments. The numbers of people parking near treatment centers are growing.
The city's proposed solution for a shortage of parking spaces near hospitals and other areas of the city is to create new regulations targeting the handicapped. The city has created new enforcement policies that would essentially cut in half the time the handicapped can park, even when using state-issued handicapped parking placards. The maximum time would be just four hours.
April Thomas, responding for the mayor’s office to an email I sent expressing concerns about the issue, explained the proposal, "Parking placards are often used by non-handicapped family members or friends to get free unlimited parking; when the placard is not in use by the handicapped person, a non-handicapped person can simply place it in their vehicle."
The administrators who came up with the new policy apparently assumed that every handicapped person drives his own car. The reality is that many handicapped people, for common-sense reasons of safety, have a family member drive them. Only a portion of the handicapped own their own cars. The state issues placards and identification cards to the handicapped, so that when a friend or family member drives them to a hospital, treatment center, or other errand, they can use the placard to find a parking place near an entrance.
The city apparently operates under the assumption that the increase in the number of handicapped people needing access to parking for medical attention simply isn’t the relevant issue. In effect, the city assumes the parking placard has been stolen or is being abused. Is abuse possible? Very likely. But without proof or knowing how many people are engaged in abuse, this is bad policy.
While enforcement officers can check to see if the placard being displayed is valid, they have no way to know if the car or person displaying the placard has stolen the permit. Under the proposal, parking enforcement officers will now write a ticket to any car with a disabled parking placard in the window if they stay in the parking space too long. They will, however, grant those with handicapped auto license plates longer parking. The city argues that license plates aren’t as easy to steal or fake. Very true, but while friends or relatives driving handicapped people aren't eligible for handicapped license plates, they can use the placard as long as they are driving the handicapped.
The state of Washington Department of Licensing has very rigid policies for granting handicapped-parking permits. Applications for permits must be signed by a doctor, with his medical license number. The handicapped are given a choice of a license plate or placard, each having the same privileges. Choosing the license plate is an additional cost, and the plate can't be used if a relative drives his or her own car to take the handicapped person to a health-care facility. The penalty for misuse is severe.
In those cases where a placard has been stolen, the city's response is to penalize the victim of the theft.
For the city to assume everyone with a placard must be a thief is outrageous. So, also, is determining that medical treatment will necessarily occur in four hours. There are a number of procedures which take longer, even overnight. When arbitrary rules are proposed by healthy, active people, with little appreciation or personal experience of a body that is wearing out, then it’s only the handicapped who pay dearly for this lack of sensitivity.
It is no surprise that, in the Seattle City Hall garage, there is parking for the mayor, his executive staff and City Council members. Also, in the City Hall garage, they provide handicapped parking space that can be used for up to 20 minutes. Sounds good, but It takes some wheelchair users 20 minutes just to get out of a car, let alone be able to attend a public hearing or visit a city council member.
For a city that seems to be at war with the automobile, with anti-parking regulations along public transportation corridors, and with proposed new buildings throughout the city without parking, it would seem that the mayor, staff, and city council operate with a dual standard. The city provides parking for the privileged, while criminalizing parking by the handicapped.
The city Department of Transportation says it will take comments through March on its proposal. But maybe there is a way the mayor could produce better public policy without waiting for the bureaucratic process to play out. Seattle has some handicapped employees. Wouldn’t it make good sense, and good press, for the mayor to set aside this new policy, and then give the job of determining fair parking policies to city employees who are handicapped themselves?
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