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DC's "red top" disabled parking program goes on hold

The DC Council put a temporary halt to DC's new "red top" meter program today. That program would have asked people with disability placards to pay to park like everyone else, but dedicated certain meters, with tops colored red, for their exclusive use. What do you think is the right policy?

Arlington meter. Photo by Tallent Show on Flickr.

Today, anyone with a disabled placard—from any state in the union—could park at a DC meter for free, and for twice the length of time the meter allows. Even the longer time limit was hard to enforce.

DDOT says abuse was rampant, by people without disabilities using the placards for commuter parking. DDOT recently checked some blocks in office areas, and found 40-90% of the cars parked on the street sporting these placards. In one L'Enfant Plaza block, 31 of 34 cars had them.

Image from DDOT.

A few months ago, DDOT announced plans to set up a new system similar to Arlington's. People with disabilities would henceforth have to pay at meters, like anyone else. They could still park at any meter, plus DDOT would set aside some "red top" meters exclusively for people with disabled placards and with longer time limits.

The vote today postpones any change at least until late June. Unfortunately, as Councilmember Jim Graham noted, the red top meters still have red tops, and people will be confused about whether they are allowed to park there. (Anyone can, for now, as if they were regular meters).

A better approach would have been to let DDOT go ahead with a revised plan it announced this morning. Unfortunately, that announcement came too late for councilmembers to really understand what was going on. DDOT said in their press release that they'd like to keep ticketing drivers without placards who park at red top meters, but would let drivers with disability placards keep parking for free until May 1.

Unfortunately, the Council acted very quickly. Bowser just announced her plan to introduce this "emergency" legislation on Friday. It's ironic that she responded to people complaining about not getting enough notice by taking action with even less notice.

Meanwhile, Mary Cheh has promised to hold a roundtable, scheduled for March 29, to discuss the policy. She said today that DDOT's communication around the issue has been "disastrous." Was it? I saw a number of announcements, press releases, tweets and more. Did DDOT really fail to communicate or were people just not paying attention?

Communication is important, but it's also an axiom of government that no matter what an agency does to communicate, some people claim that they didn't ever hear about the change.

Or are people who were parking for free (and maybe abusing the system) just upset that they have to pay now? Several councilmembers' statements during today's debate revealed that they really just don't think people with disabilities should pay for parking. Should they?

Marion Barry noted that people with disabilities have plenty of trouble in life as it is. Bowser pointed out that they get reduced fare on Metro. On the other hand, many people with disabilities also can use our transit system. Charging for parking allocates the spaces for everyone to use, and encourages people who have alternatives to use them.

What should DC's disabled parking policy be?

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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I keep up with the news and today was the first I'd heard of it. Obviously keeping up with DDOT policy is your job, David. It's not mine.

I read the paper, and look at the Post website, but don't scour it from cover to cover. I don't drive to work, so it doesn't really affect me. But it does seem to have been rolled out too quietly and without enough advance warning, in my opinion. Whether it is a good idea? Not sure.

I would definitely like to see preservation of parking for people who are truly handicapped -- while cutting down on the rampant abuse. DDOT handicapped placards for temporary conditions are issued for far too long, for example.

by news to me on Mar 20, 2012 2:26 pm • linkreport

So are these red-topped meters clearly marked for use only by handicapped motorists, or are they just red on top?

by Ron on Mar 20, 2012 2:26 pm • linkreport

No mention that 9% of all metered spaces are slated to become red top meters, in addition to the ADA mandated free parking allocated to handicapped drivers in lots around the city.

Are 9% of all DC drivers handicapped? Doubtful, but we don't know one way or another. What they should do is require all placards/plates to be renewed with a doctor's note. That should stop the fraud right there. Once we have those numbers, we can estimate the number of spots needed by comparing the total number of drivers registered in DC with the number of handicapped placards/decals given out.

Some may ask "Well what about those from outside the city driving in? Don't we have to factor them in too?"

To that I say, sorry, but DC needs to get its own house in order before catering to the residents of other states. Do you think Chicago worries about residents of Wisconsin or Indiana when making policy decisions? Or Boston worries about New Hampshirers?

1 out of 10 metered spots is outrageous.

by Matthew B on Mar 20, 2012 2:30 pm • linkreport

Cheating is rampant.

Driving a car is expensive. Gas, maintenance, insurance and the cost of the car add up. The amount the city charges for parking is generally not a large part of the cost drivers pay.

Most disabled drivers or passengers, and especially those with the most serious disabilities, need parking near where they are going more than a small subsidy.

Get rid of the subsidy.

by turteshell on Mar 20, 2012 2:39 pm • linkreport

Original press release for this was January 9, 2012:

So people who should be paying attention to DDOT should have known about this for at least two months now. As in, anyone who sits on the council commitee with oversight authority over DDOT.

by Michael Perkins on Mar 20, 2012 2:39 pm • linkreport

Based on my regular observations near L'Enfant Plaza - there are serious abusers of this system. I see on a regular basis two abled bodied coworkers walk towards their cars and swap spaces mid-day so they can park for free and not exceed the limit. What is also interesting is the vast majority have MD plates. I think there needs to be some reform to the system to prevent folks from abusing it while still allowing acess to those with disabilities.
Increase the fine for abusing the system - $500 and if a polic officer/meter maid sees a drive with the placard they should have the rigth to ensure that it is assigned to the driver and being used legitimately.

A few $500 fines and scoflaws will find a different way to game the system. Sounds cheaper than painting meters red - and why red? Why not blue with a wheelchair symbol?

by andy(2) on Mar 20, 2012 2:42 pm • linkreport

DDOT's red top program was intelligent and fair to all, including the non-disabled who previously were locked out of street parking during the work week due to the rampant abuse. Since March 1, parking spaces have miraculously freed up all over the SW quadrant. And the red top meters? Barely anyone parking at them. Hmmm. So it really is about commuters scamming to park for free all day. Curiously, those who are complaining now haven't been complaining prior to the accommodation of set-asides. They weren't complaining about lack of spaces, but now suddenly they claim there aren't enough spots (as opposed to having absolutely zero before)? It's all about wanting to keep an entitlement that is not deserved or provided anywhere else in the transportation system. Unbelievable. Thanks so much Muriel for screwing over business patrons, vendors, and everyone else who have been unable to find street parking due to the widespread abuse of the disability placards. Hopefully Mayor Gray has common sense and fairness and will override this ridiculousness.

by DC Resident on Mar 20, 2012 2:49 pm • linkreport

Until you sort out the massive fraud suspend all disabled parking.

There is nO need to turn over that many spaces. This is war on cars

by Charlie on Mar 20, 2012 2:50 pm • linkreport

@andy2: From what I understand, DC was already replacing meter heads with new IPS credit card reading single head meters. This allowed them to order new meters with red color instead of whatever the standard color is.

DC already had a blue meter coloring, which signified that the meter was accessible but was not reserved for disabled placard use only.

by Michael Perkins on Mar 20, 2012 2:53 pm • linkreport

Bob Herman, senior advocacy attorney for Paralyzed Veterans of America, had some strong, insightful comments during his interview on yesterday's Kojo Nnamdi Show.

Just mentioned that you're with a group that advocates for paralyzed veterans. You don't agree with Councilmember Bowser. You feel the new red top meters will be an improvement over the current system. Why?

When I heard about the program, I thought it was terrific because parking is impossible, and to have these extra spaces available is just such a wonderful thing. Now, the issue of paying -- for me and for my organization, Paralyzed Veterans, it's always been about equal access. And if you have equal access -- along with equal access comes equal obligations. So there shouldn't be an issue.

How about those people who -- and I suspect when Muriel -- when Councilmember Bowser mentioned seniors, you were really talking about people on fixed income.

I don't have an easy answer for that. I wish I did.

Link to transcript:

by Mitch Wander on Mar 20, 2012 3:02 pm • linkreport

I still dont get why they arent blue topped, the universal color for handicap parking.

by JJJJJ on Mar 20, 2012 3:05 pm • linkreport

Subsidized parking rates or transit rates make no sense to me. If the problem that the handicapped are experiencing is lack of money, then DC should be supplementing their disability and social security payments. It seems to me that the real problem that handicapped people (rich ones or poor ones) face is transportation access. If that's the case, then the solution is to make a higher percentage of parking spaces handicapped-only, and to improve the quality of the MetroAccess shuttle van program.

by tom veil on Mar 20, 2012 3:10 pm • linkreport

@JJJJJ: DC already had a blue top color coding system. It meant the meter was accessible but not reserved.

by Michael Perkins on Mar 20, 2012 3:22 pm • linkreport

I never understood what those blue tops were. What does "accessible" mean? What was different about those meters?

by David Alpert on Mar 20, 2012 3:23 pm • linkreport

Yes, hopefully Bob Herman, who has credibility, will testify at the March 29 roundtable hosted by Mary Cheh. He was great on the Kojo Nnamdi show yesterday.

by DC Resident on Mar 20, 2012 3:28 pm • linkreport

Do we have a breakdown of the votes? As I put in my letter to CM Evans this morning, it's much more of an inconvenience to disabled people to not be able to find a space than it is to pay for parking.

At worst, the inability to find street parking within a reasonable distance to service disabled individuals means that they have to park in a garage, which are even more expensive.

Bowser and Brown are just wrong on this issue.

by Adam L on Mar 20, 2012 3:32 pm • linkreport

The District Department of Transportation is currently designating two (2) ADA accessible parking meters for every block face that is governed by parking meter equipment. These meters are designated by a blue dome and signify that they are compliant with the following criteria.

"Accessible parking meter" and "accessible on-street parking meter" shall mean a parking meter with the following characteristics:

All operable parts, including but not limited to slots for payment, no higher than 48" from the ground;
The operable parts and meter face directed at an accessible route; and
A box of ground space free of obstacles and measuring at least 30" x 48" aligned for forward or parallel approach to the operable parts and meter

by Michael Perkins on Mar 20, 2012 3:36 pm • linkreport

@Matthew B ...

"What they should do is require all placards/plates to be renewed with a doctor's note."

Based on personal experience, I know that to be the case. Placards are clearly marked with expiration dates as well, so expired ones should be easy to ferret out.

"Some may ask 'Well what about those from outside the city driving in? Don't we have to factor them in too?'"

ADA is a federal law, so the District must comply by offering reciprocity with other jurisdictions. Can you imagine a wheelchair ramp that says, "City Residents Only?"

"1 out of 10 metered spots is outrageous."

That works out to about one per block. Survey any block downtown, and the number of blocks with 10 or more spaces is pretty rare. Not sure, but that may be part of ADA as well.

by Jack Love on Mar 20, 2012 3:53 pm • linkreport

@Charlie "Until you sort out the massive fraud suspend all disabled parking. There is nO need to turn over that many spaces. This is war on cars"

LOL, "war on cars". Everything is a "War on --" when it's something you hold near and dear. Get real.

The issue is partly abuse - fake placards, expired placards, etc - and partly enforcement, not to mention communications. The City didn't do a good job of instituting the red top policy (witness the comments on the WaPo site) nor did they manage the switchback very well. Like someone said, slap some $500 fines on scofflaws, and the spots open up.

Not sure how you know the number of spaces needed for red tops. I haven't looked, but I'd bet it's in the ADA code or in some other federal code. Highly unlikely it's made up.

by Jack Love on Mar 20, 2012 4:04 pm • linkreport

How do the red top meters do anything about abuse? All they do is make it a little more expensive for abusers, who now have to feed the meters.

That said, I have no problem with setting aside a certain number of handicapped on-street parking spaces, and with that different requirements for duration and/or pricing. I am not very sympathetic to the argument that a handicapped person should get free or discounted parking when we have no idea whether that person is in need of a subsidy--they could be quite wealthy.

by ah on Mar 20, 2012 4:07 pm • linkreport

@Jack Love

I just did some checking and it seems like the ADA requirements only apply to lots, not street parking. That said, 10% would be overkill as it appears like the requirements most places are 1 reserved space for every 25.

by Adam L on Mar 20, 2012 4:08 pm • linkreport


You're right about enforcement. Vehicles for handicap tags got to park for double the regular time, not all day. If that rule were being enforced, it would have made it a little harder to parking illegally (you would just have to move your car to another block or the opposite side of the street). That said, all those people inappropriately taking up spaces made it that much more difficult for others, including actually disabled individuals, from finding parking in some areas. That is why having dedicated spaces is still needed with stepped-up enforcement.

by Adam L on Mar 20, 2012 4:12 pm • linkreport

Thanks for checking, Adam. I grant dialing it back to 1/15 or 1/18 or 1/20 might be a better ratio, if only we can assess the valid cars in those spots.

by Jack Love on Mar 20, 2012 4:25 pm • linkreport


That is the point, they will have to pay. I don't get free parking, there is no reason why disabled people should, and most certainly no reason that commuters from MD should. The biggest issue on my end is that we were letting commuters park for free, while everyone else pays.

Sounds like they will have 1,000 new meters. Even assuming we stop 500 people from cheating the system being super conservative, lets just say those 500 people use a garage charging $10/day. That brings in an extra $1.80/person (18% parking tax) *500 or $900 a day. ~$225,000 a year.

In addition, the spots are now open to people who truly need them, be they handicapped, or simply people looking to visit downtown during the day. This is a win win. Shame on Bowser for stopping this progress for the sake of winning favor during her reelection campaign.

by Kyle W on Mar 20, 2012 4:52 pm • linkreport

Virginia requires you to carry a state-issued disabled parking permit ID with you if you are using your handicapped placard/plate. Police has the right to ask you for verification. Does MD or DC have this requirement?

Maybe there needs to be periodic handicapped parking permit enforcement days. Have cops ask every person for proof of disability or ownership of the placard. Fine the hell out of those that are abusing them (I'm talking $1000+). But this can only happen if the Virginia system of plate/placard + ID is also implemented in DC/MD.

by nyucknyuck on Mar 20, 2012 5:38 pm • linkreport

You all really overestimate the difficulty of getting and renewing a disability placard. Trust me, even if you step up enforcement (with crazy fines) but keep the parking free, you're not going to catch many people. Literally, all you need to do to get a disability placard is go to an understanding (corrupt?) doctor, claim you have bad asthma, and you're in business.

Simply put, the only solution is to begin charging for parking at the meters.

by N on Mar 20, 2012 8:10 pm • linkreport

I know someone who was using a placard she got when her child was born premature 4 years earlier. All premies are technically "special needs" at first but this kid was physically able like any other toddler, no physically apparent cerebral palsy mobility problems for instance. She was using it all the time for everything most of the time when the kid wasn't with her..

by Tina on Mar 20, 2012 9:40 pm • linkreport

The blue top accessible meters were the result of a consent decree related to a ADA lawsuit settled by the city that required a minimum number of meters that could be reached over an "accessible path" via on the sidewalk. An accessible path has very specific requirements under ADA. The issue was that on some blocks between the street signs, tree boxes, and other various street furniture a disabled person could not get to the curb to enter a parked vehicle.

The red top meters are about equal enforcement and availability of disable parking. Red tops are both accessible and reserved for those displaying placards or tags. It is just that they pay just like everyone else which removes the financial benefit of fake placards.

by Some Ideas on Mar 20, 2012 10:12 pm • linkreport

If there's any element of free disabled parking that's preserved (which I think is a bad idea but might happen anyway), it should be free parking only for the disabled bearing DC license plates. If anyone's going to get free parking, it should only be the folks paying city taxes and registration fees. There's zero case for providing free parking to non-residents.

by Falls Church on Mar 21, 2012 12:34 am • linkreport

I once saw a NASA security guard park a giant SUV (MD plates) at a meter in front of their building in SW, then hang a disabled placard on the mirror.

Made me wonder, is the handicapped parking determination system so bad that a person who works as a security guard at a federal building can get a permit? Or is NASA's security contractor so lax that they will hire just about anyone, even someone who is so disabled as to require special parking.

The sad answer is probably both.

by dcdriver on Mar 21, 2012 10:25 am • linkreport

I think looking at the percentage of spaces dedicated to red top is probably deceptive. I wouldn't be surprised if the goal were to have at least 1 space within X feet of each building entry. That might require 1 space per block. Which is probably not too far from 9%. That there are many more spaces than will be used is kind of the point. If you're in a wheelchair, parking 5 blocks away is may be a massive burden. You NEED a space on the block you're going to. So if that means that I have to walk 5 blocks, because there are a bunch of empty red top spaces in the area I'm going to. That is a price I'm willing to pay.

But looking at it as a ratio problem, instead of looking at the requirements is likely an error.

by David C on Mar 21, 2012 11:27 am • linkreport

I would have hoped one of our local media outlets could have posted the headline:

"Council delays reserved meter spaces for disabled persons"

by Mitch Wander on Mar 21, 2012 11:46 am • linkreport

Curious that the cries of outrage have come from the drivers with disabled tags, complaining about having to pay for parking. Seems to me that if you're capable of owning and driving a car, you should be able to pay for parking it.

The major question is, I think, this setaside of some 1500 commercial-area parking spaces for handicapped only. If there were really a need for that, then DDOT could already have posted that many spaces for handicapped only. It's only now that they've discovered a need for a handicapped-only parking space on, apparently, every commercial block. The drivers with disability tags seem not to perceive this rather generous tradeoff: pay for parking, yes, but you've got an enormous number of reserved parking spots on commercial blocks.

The delay in implementation will give us a chance to determine how many such handicapped-reserved parking spots is actually necessary. That 9% hit on already-tight curbside parking in commercial districts is substantial.

by Jack on Mar 21, 2012 11:48 am • linkreport

I am a DC resident who has handicap parking and uses it daily. I will say upfront that I benefit from the parking meters having extended times and enjoyed when I did not have to pay for them. Having a disability is expensive, so this one tiny perk was nice, however it's totally reasonable for the city to decide to choose another strategy for handicap parking. Access to spaces that minimize my having to walk and lug my heavy oxygen around is what is most important to me.

I am however dismayed to read here that so many people are choosing to think everyone who has a handicap placard is a fraud. Are there people who abuse the system? Of course, and it is shameful and they should be punished. However, I would like to remind everyone that not all disabilities can be readily seen and assessed by just looking at someone exiting their vehicle. I use oxygen, so my disability sits squarely in my face, but there are others for whom that is not the case.

by EAH on Mar 21, 2012 12:12 pm • linkreport

I wish DC luck with its program. I hope they sort out the number of spots and can overcome the voices that object to paying for parking.

In the 1990s when I worked in Rosslyn (Arlington County) there were no meters available on weekdays because almost all of them were occupied by able bodied commuters who used handicap tags hanging from their mirrors. It seemed some doctors handed them out like candy or folks just borrowed one from someone else. Anyway, it was a handy way to park all day for free. The situation was similar to what we see in some parts of DC today.

In 1998 Arlington County changed its policy and now requires everyone to pay to use the meters. There are special 'disability meters' that allow double the time. However, the bigger bonus was that a handicapped person now had a real opportunity to find a metered spot near their destination. (whether it was a regular or handicapped meter didn't matter so much to the people I talked to. The big thing was getting a spot.)

All this seems similar to what DC is proposing.

by Josey23 on Mar 21, 2012 12:23 pm • linkreport


However, I would like to remind everyone that not all disabilities can be readily seen and assessed by just looking at someone exiting their vehicle.

This is absolutely true - but I don't think this is the justification for the allegations of fraud.

Fraud rates vary, but the low estimates from some cities are at 44%, while one sting in Alexandria found a 90% violation rate. Ninety percent. With violation rates like that, you can see why many people will assume that most who use disabled parking are indeed using it fraudulently.

The problem is that you can't easily enforce against fraud without setting up some sort of sting operation to catch people coming or going from their cars, and then check their status against their tag status. That kind of enforcement is spotty and very resource intensive, thus it won't happen often and will not be able to stop the flow of those who cheat the system - since they'll just choose to risk the cost of a ticket in favor of free parking, knowing that enforcement will be spotty.

Charging for parking via red top meters is self-enforcing. It removes the financial incentive to cheat the system.

by Alex B. on Mar 21, 2012 12:33 pm • linkreport

Does anyone remember the story in the Post about the woman complaining about Secret Service moving her car when she attended something at the convention center? Turns out, she used a handicapped placard reserved for her husband's use and he wasn't with her. That's a big example of how the system is abused.

by lou on Mar 21, 2012 12:38 pm • linkreport

This seems like a quick decision was made without considering what the problem actually was.
Problems here seem to be:
1) too many people have handicapped parking placards (perhaps more than actually are eligible). This is an issue with verification of disability and sits with whomever issues the placards. Perhaps doctors need better criteria for who qualifies, and perhaps placards should be issued to individuals not to vehicles (which is the case in some states). Perhaps the issuing agency needs better quality control.
2) Enforcement of disability parking seems to be lacking, and may be needing an awareness campaign in areas where placards appear overused. This is not an excuse to assume people with invisible disabilities do not need placards, however!
3) If parking meters are accessible (ie I could get my wheelchair up the curb to the meter and reach the payment slot) then why SHOULDN'T it be required for disabled people to pay?

by Jocelyn on Mar 21, 2012 2:18 pm • linkreport

There has been poor planning in the implementation of this project. Right and left hands lack coordination to strike a clap. Incomplete research as to what is needed to resolve posed problems. For example, 4 out of 9 meters designated handicapped sounds high.
Many people are jumping to conclusions. Physical disabilities do vary and not always clearly obvious to the eye. Yes, some dishonest people abuse the priviledge, but not all. If a proper survey were conducted I would NOT be surprised if it found that most who are disabled would be willing to pay metered parking. I am sure the majority are more cocerned with time and ease of mobility going from car to location and vice versa.
Last year I dislocated an ankle, on crutches approx 8 weeks and of course recovery time after. The last thing I wanted to do every two hours was have to go out and refill a meter every two hours - especially when it included a trip up & down stairs - while at work.

by Abby on Mar 21, 2012 3:31 pm • linkreport

@Abby and @EAH - while you're both correct that "some dishonest people abuse the privilege, but not all," revisit the information graphic from DDOT presented in this article. 31 of 34 cars on the 300 block of L'Enfant have handicapped placards? All of the canvassed streets having at least 37.5% of parked cars sporting the permit? Pretty hard to believe that isn't a product of massive abuse.

Regarding filling the meter every two hours: that shouldn't be an issue anymore. You can pay with a credit card, and pay for chunks of time all at once or on the Parkmobile app.

by worthing on Mar 21, 2012 4:24 pm • linkreport

@Worthington I'm familiar with the Parkmobile ap and have used it several times, mostly without problem. However, currently the red top meters have not been set up with extended time frames on Parkmobile, and further using it does assume that all disabled patrons have access to a credit card, which is a broad assumption.

by EAH on Mar 21, 2012 5:05 pm • linkreport

@Worthington - Yes, pretty hard to believe. L'Enfant Plaza is extremely high. I am familiar with the Parkmobile ap. That works providing that all have access to it, and providing it functions properly. I have parked numerous occassions attempted to pay using the app, and it would not allow me the full amount of time allocated. For example, the meters by where I work at two hours and some four hours. When Parkmobile is used it only let's you pay for one hour, and does not allow it to be extended.

by Abby on Mar 21, 2012 6:17 pm • linkreport

@JJJJJ It's not clear that there is a "standard" color for disabled meters.

Arlington, for example, used five different colors for parking meters. The meter head indicates the time limit for the meter.

Blue indicates a two-hour meter. Red is four hours. Meters for disabled persons have signage on a nearby street pole and the disabled symbol on the meter head.

by Mitch Wander on Mar 22, 2012 6:24 am • linkreport

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