Atlantic Cities

Why Chicago Is Rolling Back Free Parking for the Disabled

Why Chicago Is Rolling Back Free Parking for the Disabled

Critics of free parking for the disabled typically make three arguments, inciting varying degrees of controversy. The first: Disabled placards are broadly misused by drivers who have no disability at all, spoiling the system (and the public's good will) for people who actually need them. The second: Free unlimited parking incentivizes people to overuse a costly public resource, undermining attempts to manage road congestion through parking pricing. The third: While disabled drivers might need parking access, they don't need free parking, because a physical disability isn't the same as a financial inability to pay.

Cities as a result have to wrestle with all of these competing goals: providing disabled access, curbing fraud, collecting revenue, and managing the public asset of curb space. None of which is easy. Illinois, however, is rolling out a new, much tougher law that tries to balance these interests, and it goes into effect in Chicago today.

Under the new law, the state will continue to give out disabled placards that can be used at any designated disabled parking spot. But only a small subset of drivers will be able to use them to park for free at metered street spots: People whose disabilities logistically prevent them from paying the meter.

To qualify for the new free placard, drivers will have to prove through their doctors that they can't do at least one of the following:

-- Feed parking meters “due to the lack of fine motor control of both hands.”
-- Feed meters because they need to use a wheelchair.
-- Reach above their heads "to a height of 42 inches above the ground."
-- Walk more than 20 feet due to an orthopedic, neurological, cardiovascular or lung condition.

Illinois, in effect, has eliminated the idea that all disabled parking should be free parking. But the state recognizes that some disabled drivers simply can't pay – and shouldn't be subject to time restrictions – for reasons that have nothing to do with financial need. To qualify for these free placards (they're a different color scheme), drivers must also have a valid Illinois driver's license. That means a disabled person riding in a passenger seat doesn't have the same expectation to a free spot.

The law went into effect throughout most of the state on January 1, but Chicago extended a two-week grace period. Last year, the city's police department conducted a number of disabled-parking stings under the state's old law, and it wound up confiscating placards in 16-18 percent of cases because drivers were using them illegally. The new law likely won't entirely eliminate fraud. But it does rein in the biggest incentive: unlimited free parking, anywhere.

Top image: Svetlana Koryakova/

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities based in Washington, D.C. She now writes for The Washington Post. All posts »

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