Parking reform, aging, and disability roundtable

For people who advocate for parking policy reform (or transportation reform more broadly), the question comes up a lot: if you want to take away parking spots, doesn’t that exclude people with disabilities or mobility issues who rely on those spaces? 

This topic is complex, but luckily there are people on the case to sift through the discourse. At a recent Parking Reform Network organizing roundtable moderated by PRN founder Tony Jordan, we heard from several people who provided a unique perspective on how parking reform and disability justice can not only coexist, but in fact thrive in tandem with each other to create a less car-dependent world where everyone can get around more freely. They reminded us not to think of any community as a monolith, to leave room for nuance and to make sure to actually include disabled people in the conversation instead of speaking on their behalf. 

Our four guests at the roundtable were:

  • Cassie Wilson, a climate, transportation and disability justice organizer who lives in a rural area near Portland. Wilson has a mobility-related disability and she uses a wheelchair but is able to drive a wheelchair-accessible vehicle.
  • Corallete Hannon, who works in the AARP’s Department of Government Affairs focusing on housing, transportation, broadband, and energy advocacy.
  • Megan Lynch, the founder of UC Access Now, a coalition of students, staff and faculty throughout the University of California system who work to dismantle ableism in the UC system. 
  • Anna Zivarts, director of the Disability Mobility Initiative, a program within Disability Rights Washington. Zivarts is vision-impaired and organizes with other people who can’t drive a car, whether because of a disability or other reasons.

We wanted to share a few primary takeaways from the conversation. These were only some of the topics our panelists covered in this roundtable – this conversation is vast and ongoing, but it’s important to get the ball rolling. We appreciate their time and insights, and you can watch the recording of the roundtable here:

Able-bodied people are commanding the discourse (and they shouldn’t be!)

The panelists pointed out that a lot of the times they hear an uproarious debate about whether or not a certain parking reform effort is equitable for people with different mobility needs, one crucial thing is missing from the conversation — the perspectives of disabled people themselves.

“Whenever I see conversations for or against anything in the world of transportation, it’s often a bunch of non-disabled people claiming what is or isn’t ableist on either side,” Cassie Wilson said. “A lot of times disabled people just aren’t brought into conversation.” 

Megan Lynch said she sees people with strong opinions on either side of the parking reform debate using disabled people as a weapon to try to strengthen their own argument instead of genuinely listening to their points of view.

“Car-centered people leap in and say ‘We can’t do [parking reform] because disabled people need [a place to park their cars],” she said. “And then people on the other side say, ‘Not everyone can afford a car, and disabled people make less money – which is often true. But we’re not really talking to actual disabled people.”

Zivarts agreed. 

“There may be a different world that’s possible, but we won’t get there unless we actually bring people with disabilities into leadership and decision making so it’s not an afterthought or completely ignored when we’re planning,” she said.

Nuance, nuance, nuance

It’s admittedly tricky to encompass the entire range of human experience within a single tweet, which is often how public conversations about parking policy play out. But while we’re talking about asking disabled people to come to the table and share their thoughts and experiences with parking reform, we should also recognize that the disabled community is not a monolith. Everyone has a different experience that informs their opinions on this topic.

For instance, Hannon, who works primarily with older adults who may struggle with mobility more as they age, said she sees a lot of different takes on the parking reform issue. 

“I think we need to remember not to think everyone who falls into a certain group is going to have the same position on an issue,” Hannon said. “We really need to look at the nuances and the personal experiences that folks may be bringing to the table, which may color the position that they’re taking.”

It’s not all or nothing: there’s space for compromise 

Lynch brought up an example of how her personal experience doesn’t always correlate perfectly with what she advocates for more broadly in her disability activism. Lynch said she has childhood post-traumatic stress disorder, partially triggered by dogs. But even though she has a negative response to being around dogs, she knows many other disabled people rely on dogs to navigate the world with a disability. She called this discord “conflicting access needs.”

“I can’t demand a dog-free space because there are people who need dogs in order to meet their access needs. I have to work it out with them,” Lynch said. 

If one person (like Zivarts) can’t drive because of their disability and another (like Wilson) often needs to be able to use a car and have an accessible parking space, all hope is not lost. There are many opportunities for conversation and compromise. People with disabilities who have to get around a world designed for able-bodied people have lots of experience with this.

Wilson pointed out that a lot of parking reform policy sounds drastic to people when it’s really not. Just because we make car parking less ubiquitous doesn’t mean there will never be anywhere to park.

“Eliminating parking mandates doesn’t mean that parking won’t be built. I think a lot of people miss that,” she said.

Broader change is needed 

In order to create a truly accessible world, we have to work on creating systemic change within our transportation system. If car-dependence was reduced across all levels of society, people with and without disabilities would be less reliant on car parking that is so problematic for city liveability. This means making sure there are other ways for people across the spectrum to get around. 

If we’re removing parking, we really do need to take a closer look at the alternative options for folks to get to the locations they need to go,” Hannon said. 

Wilson takes public transit as often as she can, but because she lives miles outside of Portland proper in an area unserviced by the public transportation system, she needs to drive (and thus, park a car) more than she’d like.

Zivarts said that even though her organization doesn’t focus on parking reform predominantly, this topic is very relevant to larger work about making cities more liveable for all people using alternate modes of transportation.

“Much of the work we do is focused around questioning communities that are built around driving,” Zivarts said. “For those of us who can’t drive, there are a lot of barriers we see that are only able to be addressed through rethinking auto dependence.”

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