In the grim world of Old Town parking, many drivers take a kill-or-be-killed attitude. Some go so far as to snag one of the strategically placed handicapped spaces that ring Market Square. This can be a problem, ironically enough, when the Commission for Persons with Disabilities meets in room 2000 of City Hall on the second Wednesday of every month. Chester Avery, chairman of the commission’s transportation committee, said that several commissioners have been prevented from attending meetings because the restricted spaces were taken by cars that did not have the proper identification.
“If they can’t park, then they can’t participate,” said Avery, a longtime advocate for people with disabilities. “For some people, this is extraordinarily offensive.”
Avery said that although attitudes about people with disabilities have been changing over the past 10 years, many people still have a disregard for the specially designated parking spaces. By illegally using them, Avery said, able-bodied drivers could be denying an individual with a disability an opportunity to be an active participant in mainstream society.
“The real purpose of these spaces is to accommodate people with disabilities, and make sure they can get around,” said Avery. “The bigger issue, of course, is that there’s not enough parking in Old Town. That makes these spaces even more important.”
TO PREVENT VIOLATIONS, the Alexandria Police Department conducts four crackdowns every year. Most recently, the city’s traffic-enforcement section organized a special effort from Nov. 27 to Dec. 1 to find cars that did not have a special license tag or state-issued windshield placard. Officers were directed to patrol parking lots and streets with handicap-designated spaces, checking to make sure that vehicles parked there had proper identification. Violators received a $178 ticket, although costs could go higher with possible towing and storage charges.
“We want to keep this fresh in people’s minds,” said Lt. Paul Story, commander of the traffic section. “Commercial areas tend to be areas we check more frequently.”
The city issued about 60 citations, pulling in approximately $10,680 of revenue during the five-day crackdown. Last year, the city issued 483 tickets to drivers who illegally used the reserved spaces, generating about $111,000 for city coffers. Story said that the holiday season was a time when police officers must be even more vigilant because parking is at a premium as shoppers flood the city’s stores.
“If we didn’t do anything about it, we would have a lot more violators,” said Story. “By conducting this kind of a crackdown, we hope to bring focus to this problem.”
SINCE THE LATE 1970s, Alexandria has set aside special parking spaces for vehicles with handicap tags or placards. Currently, drivers of authorized vehicles are allowed to park virtually anywhere — including metered spaces, where they are not required to feed the meters. Bob Garbacz, transportation division chief for the city government, said that the spaces are often required by City Hall.
“Zoning requirements will often stipulate handicapped spaces on private developments,” said Garbacz. “On public streets, we put those on as needs arise.”
Alexandria has a history of being progressive on the issue of accessibility, and the city has been recognized as one of the 11 most accessible cities in the country by the National Organization on Disabilities. As a result, city officials take a harsh view of those who violate city policy designed to maximize participation of individuals with disabilities. Amy Bertsch, the Police Department’s public information officer, said that violators will be punished.
“It’s important that these spaces remain available for those who need them,” said Bertsch. “That’s why we conduct these quarterly crackdowns.”