PORTLAND — A number of cars and trucks have vanished from downtown Portland since July 1.
Where they have gone is a mystery, but why they are gone is not.
Since July 1, motorists with disabled placards have had to pay for metered parking spaces. Before the change, vehicles with placards could park for free with unlimited hours. It was common to find blocks in which every spot was taken, and almost all the vehicles displayed a placard.
Now there are many empty spaces.
Parking code enforcement officer Becky Rhodes said she saw a dramatic change on July 1 and thought it might be partly due to the Fourth of July holiday. But it has continued.
“I was amazed on July 1,” she said. “I thought there would be more of a transition period, but people just stopped. They were gone.”
Portland officials decided to end free, unlimited parking for most disabled drivers — wheelchair users still get it for free — to ease congestion, thwart cheaters, increase meter revenue and help businesses by increasing turnover. Other U.S. cities, such as Philadelphia and Raleigh, N.C., have done the same thing.
The city will survey its roughly 9,000 downtown metered spaces this fall, so the precise impact of the policy change won’t be known until then. The October 2012 survey found a 72 percent increase in disabled parking placards in five years. In the core area of downtown, a third of the vehicles had them.
The Associated Press on Thursday and Friday checked Southwest Taylor Street between Second and Third avenues. At 3:30 p.m. Thursday, there were eight vehicles occupying roughly 17 spots — the parking spaces on the right side of the one-way street lack clear boundaries. On Friday at 10 a.m., there were 11 vehicles on the block.
For an article on the subject last summer, The AP found every space taken, and nearly every vehicle had a blue placard that allowed its driver to occupy the spot all day without paying a dime, let alone the $1.60-per-hour rate.
The Portland Bureau of Transportation alerted drivers to the rule change by putting informational fliers on every vehicle that displayed a placard. Violators thus far have been given warnings rather than the standard $60 ticket for parking without paying.
“That ensures that people actually, truly know about it,” bureau spokeswoman Diane Dulken said.
Parking enforcement officers slapped 428 warnings on windshields from July 1 through July 8, excluding the Fourth of July.
Though drivers with placards now have to pay, they do get a discount on their first three hours in a spot. But the proliferation of open spaces since July 1 appears to show the power of “free” parking.
“It sort of looks that way,” Rhodes said with a laugh.