“Love all — serve all” is the slogan you’ll find printed on the menu of the Hard Rock Cafe. “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” is what Dante found inscribed on the gates of hell.
And somewhere between those two sentiments are the words plastered on every single parking meter in Arlington County: “All may park. All must pay.”
There’s a certain spare poetry in those six words, albeit of a rather stern sort. You can imagine Yoda saying them. And it got Answer Man wondering: Words don’t write themselves. Who wrote these?
Before we get to the who, we should understand the why. The reason has to do with some people’s apparently irredeemable horribleness. In 1994, a survey of a portion of Crystal City found that fully 45 percent of parking meters were being used by motorists with disability placards. At the time, meter parking for disabled people was free and unlimited. If you had a hangtag you could park all day, gratis.
“The value of a parking space in 1994 in Crystal City was $1,700 a year,” says Frank O’Leary.
Frank thinks about money a lot, which is not surprising, given that he’s now in his eighth term as treasurer of Arlington County. He estimated that the county was losing $350,000 in revenue annually because of able-bodied people using placards meant for people with disabilities.
“This is a vast windfall for these physically able persons,” Frank said.
Frank and others in the county approached the problem in economic terms. What if they removed the value of a disabled placard? And so he began lobbying to make drivers with disabilities pay for their parking.
“I thought I’d better go talk to people in the disability community before I started proposing things,” Frank said. Among those he spoke with was Larry Pelkey, who chaired the county’s disability commission. Larry became a quadriplegic after his car was hit by a driver running a red light.
Frank was expecting a negative reaction, but Larry agreed. So long as mechanisms were in place to make it easy to pay there was no reason disabled drivers should expect free parking. Frank had introduced something called the Parkulator (replaced by the iPark), a device drivers keep in their glove compartments and top up with money. Drivers also can purchase a medallion to hang from their mirror indicating they’ve pre-paid for parking. The Americans with Disabilities Act (based on legislation pioneered in Arlington, by the way) mandated things like curb cuts.
Frank said the maximum estimate of bona fide disability is 4 percent, with the disability rate among active adults who would actually park about 2 percent. In 1998, Arlington agreed to set aside a maximum of 4 percent of its meters for disabled use, installing them in places where disabled people specifically asked for them.
“I don’t think any other place in the country does this,” he said.
Today about 1.4 percent of all meters in Arlington — fewer than 100 — are for the use of the disabled. At a price.
But how to communicate the change to drivers who were accustomed to free parking? Frank and Larry brainstormed. “It had to fit in a limited space,” Frank said. “We also had to try to come up with something that would not offend persons with disabilities.”
Larry’s suggestion: “All may park. All must pay.”
If the final language isn’t the sort of thing you typically encounter in an official setting, Frank said that’s because he’s not technically a county employee. “I’m an elected official. I’m not bound by the strictures of the civil service or the mind of a bureaucrat.”
Not every Arlingtonian is enamored of the system. David Burds, head of the ENDependence Center of Northern Virginia, a nonprofit group that works to help disabled people live independently, said problems persist with the meters. Some people, he said, can’t manipulate coins or credit cards and don’t know about iPark.
Larry Pelkey passed away in 2009 from pneumonia, but his words — an urban koan — live on.
A long summer stretches ahead of us. That can be a good thing or it can be a bad thing. Good if you’re a kid from a family with lots of options. Not so good if your options are limited.
Moss Hollow is a summer camp that gives at-risk kids from the D.C. area a week in the woods of Fauquier County. For years readers of The Post have supported Moss Hollow, ensuring that anyone who wants to go may go. To make your tax-deductible donation, go to washingtonpost.com/camp. Click where it says, “Give Now,” and designate “Send a Kid to Camp” in the gift information. Or mail a check payable to “Send a Kid to Camp” to Send a Kid to Camp, P.O. Box 96237, Washington, D.C. 20090-6237.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/john kelly.