Anyone searching for a parking space in downtown Sacramento on a weekday might conclude that a big percentage of this city's residents is disabled.
Bright blue and red placards hang in half of the windshields on some blocks, allowing those cars to park free all day at any meter, regardless of how much time the meter allows or how congested the area is.
As placard numbers grow across the state, frustrated officials from Sacramento to Los Angeles say too many users are in fact able-bodied people abusing the system. It's time to put a stop to it, they say.
Vehicles wrongly sporting disabled placards block customers from getting to businesses, cut into city parking revenue and keep truly disabled people from being able to park near their destinations, city officials contend.
"It's out of control," said Sacramento city transportation head Jerry Way. "If we don't do something, people are going to continue to game the system."
Sacramento city parking representatives will bring their concerns to the City Council on Thursday as part of a larger discussion on how the city can better manage downtown parking.
Officials acknowledge they do not know how many placards are being misused, but they conclude based on enforcement efforts that misuse is common.
"Given our experience, a certain percentage of those are absolutely being abused," Sacramento city parking manager Howard Chan said.
Chan said his department will brief the council on how the city could improve overall downtown parking and increase revenue. But spending money on new technology such as cellphone apps that point drivers to available spots and allow them to pay via phone is harder to justify when so many metered spots are taken by free parkers.
A recent city survey on several blocks of N Street near the Capitol found 73 percent of parking spots occupied by cars with blue placards. Many were parked most of the day, suggesting they belonged to downtown workers.
A Bee survey this week found 45 percent of vehicles parked on L and N streets at the Capitol had placards.
The number of placards in Sacramento has risen far faster in recent years than population growth. As of last year, 100,000 vehicles in Sacramento County had placards. That's nearly one of every 10 vehicles, the third highest among California counties.
Under state law, the Department of Motor Vehicles issues placards to drivers who submit applications signed by any of a number of health care workers: doctors, chiropractors, optometrists, physician's assistants, nurse practitioners and nurse midwives.
The application requires the health care worker to say the person meets disability requirements set by the state. Qualifying disabilities include lung disease, heart disease, inability to move without an assistive device, significant limitation to lower extremities, other disorders that impair mobility, and visual acuity below certain standards.
DMV officials say they think most of the abuse is by relatives and caregivers of legitimate placard holders.
Some city officials in California say such misuse would be dramatically reduced by requiring some or all placard users to pay for street parking at regular metered spots. Under that scenario, cities likely would increase the number of blue curb zones designated only for cars with disabled placards. Parking lots would continue to have disabled parking spots.
"Right now, there is tremendous (financial) incentive to cheat," said San Francisco parking chief Jay Primus.
Recession-ravaged cities, in turn, have a considerable financial incentive to cut down on cheating to free up parking meters for paying customers.
"It would lead to a lot more money for every city if you can flush out the abusers and restrict it to the people who really need it," said Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at UCLA.
Disabled advocates say making everyone pay would be overkill and could penalize people with disabilities, especially without solid data on how much abuse really occurs.
"We certainly want abuse curtailed," said Deborah Doctor of Disability Rights California. "But sometimes there are well-intentioned (laws) that have unintended negative consequences." She said one reason for the increase in vehicles with placards downtown may be that more disabled people participate in the workforce.
The disabled parking perk has deep roots in California. State law in the 1950s gave disabled veterans parking privileges. That was extended in 1959 to everyone deemed disabled. Officials and advocates say the law was put in place to aid people whose physical limitations made it hard to use meters, and hard to return to a metered car in a timely manner. Advocates also say the law takes into account that some disabled people are lower-income or on a fixed income.
Several recent efforts to change the law have failed, due to the difficulty of gaining agreement from various groups.
Los Angeles leaders this year shelved legislation that would have increased penalties for placard abusers and required payments by disabled people at certain meters. A San Francisco effort several years ago to require placard users to pay at meters, with the funds to be spent on providing more disabled access, also did not get off the ground. San Francisco officials say they plan to convene an advisory group this fall to take another shot at a resolution.
Sarah Anderson, a paraplegic and disabled advocate who came to the Capitol this week to testify at a spinal cord injury hearing, said any change has to take into account issues that people with disabilities face daily on the street. When Anderson parks, for instance, she has to assemble her wheelchair and lower herself into it.
The city's recent switch to using pay stations on some downtown blocks instead of parking meters would make the task tougher if people in wheelchairs had to use them.
"On a rainy day, the last thing you want to do is go down the block (to the pay station), then back and put it in your car," Anderson said. "It's really challenging."
Frances Gracechild, executive director of Resources for Independent Living in Sacramento, said she has mixed feelings about requiring placard users to pay at meters, unless a "needs-based system" is set up to allow poorer placard users to continue to park for free.
As for cheaters, weeding them out is fine if it doesn't harm people with disabilities. "Borrowing grandma's placard to go to Walmart is a very tacky thing to do," she said. "It's up there with littering on the highway."
Editor's note: This story was changed Aug. 8 to reflect when state law giving disabled veterans parking privileges was extended.