Permits for accessible, not free, parking

Cars displaying handicapped parking permits occupy most of the "Courier Parking" zone on Duncan St. in Toronto.

Toronto City Council has created a booming illegal market in fake Handicapped Parking permits. The fix is simple.

As a society, we've dedicated choice parking spots in public parking lots for people with mobility challenges: handicapped disabled, accessible spaces. They're signed with a wheelchair icon and only those vehicles with special "Accessible Parking Permits" can legally park there. Misuse of these APPs, however, is a fast-growing problem in the city. The city is trying to crack down on the abuse, but its plan to do so is entirely misguided.

Last year, Toronto Police issued over 16,000 tickets for misuse of APPs. Most tickets carried fines of around $300. In one two-week campaign in February 2016, police inspected a total of 1,565 permits and discovered 293 were either counterfeit or being abused. That's 19 per cent of permits on car dashboards that were illegal. That year, Toronto Police confiscated 1,350 misused or counterfeit APPs – a number that was up 28 per cent over 2015, and the 2015 number itself had ballooned 28 per cent over 2014. It's also a booming black-market industry. A criminal industry.

Toronto's policy of providing free parking to Accessible Parking Permit holders has created a booming illegal industry in fake permits that robs legitimately disabled parkers of accessible spaces.

Why is this happening?

The problem in Toronto is exacerbated, if not entirely created by, a City of Toronto policy that allows drivers with handicapped-parking permits to park on most city streets without paying.

Toronto bylaws allow APP-holders to "park at on-street parking meters or 'pay and display' machines" without paying. Permit-holders are also allowed to park in "signed prohibited parking areas; this includes time restricted No Parking areas (i.e. 8am - 6pm) and general No Parking Anytime areas that display the regulatory No Parking sign." The only exception to this blanket permission is "signed Rush Hour Routes (7am - 9am or 3:30pm - 6:30 pm Monday to Friday)."

APP-holders may also park without paying on residential streets which normally require resident parking permits. And, they're exempt from other "signed parking limits such as One Hour and Two Hour maximums."

This policy is fairly unique to Toronto. 

Other municipalities do not grant these generous and lucrative permissions and exemptions to accessible parking permit holders. In most cities, the permits allow drivers to park in designated accessible parking spaces and that's it. They still must pay for parking just like everyone else.

In Toronto, however, the addition of free parking virtually anywhere has made accessible parking permits a valuable commodity. Very valuable.

The cheapest parking you can find in downtown Toronto goes for at least $20 per day. And, you have to look long and hard to find it. Typical parking charges in a downtown office tower are $45-60 per day. But, let's be frugal.

A commuter working 5-days a week in downtown Toronto and parking her car for $20/day spends $5,000 per year on parking (assuming she takes two weeks off.)

If she had an accessible parking permit, she could park virtually anywhere, at any time – for free. That's a cool $5,000 per year savings. How much would you pay for a pass worth $5,000? A lot, I bet.

$5,000 is a lot of incentive to create, buy and sell counterfeit parking permits – or to misuse genuine ones.

The city could fix this easily. Instead, it's plan will make it worse

Toronto City Council is expected to approve a Toronto Police Services Board report this week that calls on the province to help fight this abuse. What remedy does Toronto? Three things that will add cost and inconvenience for taxpayers and legitimate users of accessible permits – but will do nothing to stem the abuse. Toronto wants:

1. The province require permit-holders to convince two physicians, instead of one, they need a permit.

2. Temporary permits to be returned to Service Ontario before permanent permits are issued.

3. A photo of the legitimate permit-holder to be printed on the back of the permit.

This will add red-tape and expense to the permit system. It will do absolutely nothing, however, to stop the black-market in counterfeit permits taking advantage of the fact a permit is still worth up to $5,000 in free parking for the user.

The fix is simple. Eliminate the free-parking privileges associated with Accessible Parking permits and the incentive to abuse the system will disappear.

None of this will stop able-bodied sons, daughters, husbands, nieces or neighbours from using someone else's permit when they're not in the car – so they can park for free. And, if they've got it in the car anyway.... they are more likely to park in that big, welcoming space reserved right beside the door to the grocery store.

What Toronto City Council should do is simple: Toronto should eliminate the free-ride parking permit holders get on city streets. Eliminating the free parking privilege will make accessible permits worthless to able-bodied abusers. Counterfeit permits previously worth $5,000 will, instantly, become worthless. The black-market industry will shrivel and die.

What disabled people need are big parking spaces, close to the buildings they're going to. They don't need free parking on every street in the city. Being disabled is not the same as being poor. If you can't afford parking – you shouldn't be driving. And, if society decides you deserve assistance with your parking expenses, it should be because you're poor – not because you're disabled.