Do you have a parking shortage in your downtown or business district? Many municipal parking directors and managers of downtown organizations hear scores of complaints from customers and merchants who claim there’s no place to park, at least on the street.

Screen Shot 2015-02-02 at 9.20.27 PMMany cities and towns have focused attention on re-examining streets that carry only modest traffic but are marked either no parking or have limited parking hours. Others have tried to solve the problem of downtown employees arriving early, taking the most desirable spaces, and either plugging meters or periodically moving their cars. However, while these measures may produce modest gains, there is another rich trove of potential spaces most cities are loathe to explore. I’m talking about curbing the abuse of disabled placards.

One city that had the wisdom and courage to tackle this issue recently is Portland, Ore. The Portland Bureau of Transportation estimates that placarded cars occupying prime on-street spaces dropped 70 percent when the city started charging placard displayers $2.40 for 90 minutes. In one enforcement beat in the heart of downtown, parked vehicles displaying placards dropped from 31 percent of available spaces to 8 percent.

Portland isn’t the only city suffering from disabled parking placard abuse. In cities where I’ve consulted in the past few years, parking directors have estimated that 30 percent to as much as 50 percent of on-street spaces are occupied by placard holders.

No one disputes that there are many people who absolutely need close-in, reserved parking. My mother had a very weak heart, walked with a walker, and had a valid reason for obtaining and using a placard. When I had two hip replacements, I used a placard for a few weeks. But I would contend that abuse is way too common, and the solution is a matter of political will. City leaders, however, might find they have allies in local organizations serving disabled people when seeking to end abuse. In one Montana city that was a client of mine, the director of a resource center for disabled people said ending abuse was something he could support because it would free up spaces for those who truly need them.

What seems to work in Portland and other cities with this problem is simply asking people with placards to pay for the spaces they use, even if these spaces are designated for disabled people.