To illustrate the need for revisions in the D.C. parking program for people with disabilities, a city government team did a video patrol along some downtown streets. The video shows car after car displaying disability placards.

In the 1700 block of G Street NW, for example, 55 percent of the parked cars had placards. Many vehicles in this spot survey had D.C. license plates and Maryland placards. One had Virginia plates and a Kansas placard. Another had Virginia plates and a Michigan placard. Several vehicles had placards with the same numbers, suggesting duplication.

D.C. officials with various responsibilities for street parking told D.C. Council members last week that it’s difficult to know for sure, but it certainly looked like a lot of able-bodied people were taking advantage of free parking rules meant for people with disabilities.

In some parts of downtown, the disability placards had essentially become a “commuter parking pass,” said Terry Bellamy, the District’s transportation director.

The red top handicapped parking meters program is currently suspended. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

But the program was in effect for only a couple of weeks last month before it was suspended. The D.C. Council, responding to protests, passed emergency legislation giving Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s administration 90 days to justify the program and show it could fix problems the protesters had identified.

What went wrong?

The initial phase of the program focused on stopping cheating rather than providing for the needs of people with disabilities.

The reserved parking at the red top meters — with the key provision that people parking at those meters could stay for double the usual time — was limited to 400 spaces around federal office buildings and the central business district.

D.C. officials said the difference was visible as soon as the program started. When the placards no longer served as a free passes, they disappeared from the streets around downtown office buildings.

That would have been great, except that a parking program for people with disabilities has to be about more than catching cheaters.

Bellamy referred to the initial phase as “a soft roll out just to see how it would work,” but it wasn’t really. Even if the initial distribution of red tops was sufficient for parking downtown, what about the needs of the disabled for street parking in places like Georgetown or Capitol Hill, or many other areas?

As soon as enforcement took effect on March 1, a disabled person who parked at any of the other city meters was no longer entitled to stay for double the usual time. A disabled person might well need more than the usual time — as the double-time provision for the red tops acknowledged.

To its credit, the District Department of Transportation saw that the program had suddenly imposed a severe new restriction on the disabled and announced it would hasten the distribution of red tops city wide and would temporarily allow disabled people to park at any meter for double the time.

But regular meters aren’t set up for double-time payments. That meant disabled people would have to return to the meters and add time. They might have the option to add time via cell phone, but then they were subject to a 35 cent surcharge.

It’s one thing if you chose the pay by phone system as a convenient alternative to depositing coins. But if the system forces the disabled to pay extra for parking because they have no alternative, the city has a problem.

It was at that point that the council stepped in and passed emergency legislation to suspend the red top program for 90 days.

Now what?

But the council’s intervention has exposed other issues that need to be resolved. If the red top program is allowed to continue, exactly how many reserved spaces should there be and exactly where should they be?

City merchants are very aware of the role of street parking as a customer service. If they see that red top spaces are sitting empty while their customers are circling the blocks looking for parking, they’re going to complain. How will that be resolved?

Also, not all of the red top meters were installed at spaces accessible for disabled people. At some, the meter may be difficult to get at. At others, it may be difficult to lower a wheelchair ramp.

There’s a larger issue: If disabled people are going to pay for parking, should they be paying the same rate as the able-bodied, when the able-bodied have access to thousands more spaces?

And if the city is concerned about cheating, is there a way to go after the cheaters without disrupting parking services for the disabled?