The Free Market

Home | Mises Library | Who Owns the Parking Lots?

Who Owns the Parking Lots?

The Free Market

Tags Free MarketsPrivate Property

10/01/2005Laurence M. Vance

The Free Market 26, no. 10 (October 2005)

The fifteenth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, signed into law by President Bush I on July 26, 1990, has come and gone, but it has not been a success. It has cost untold billions, increased the pestilence of labor disputes, and even increased the ranks of the unemployed among the disabled population (because it made them more expensive to hire).

But even before this law was passed, there was a visible reminder of government intervention in society on behalf of the disabled that remains very apparent to this day: handicapped parking.

It happens all the time. You see what appears to be an empty parking space on the other side of the parking lot. But when you drive over there you are not able to park. Not because someone has already taken the space—the space may have been vacant all day—but because it is a handicapped parking space. Fines for parking in these spaces can exceed $150 in some areas.

And yet many of the people using them don’t seem handicapped at all. Many of the spaces go unused for hours at a time. And many of the stores with the most handicapped parking spaces have the fewest handicapped patrons.

Now, no one can be against the idea of special parking for the handicapped. However, there is a case against the various laws passed by state governments which mandate that a store have x-number of handicapped parking spaces.

Opponents of liberty and the free market would have everyone believe that without government intervention there would be few or no parking spaces reserved for the handicapped. But like the ideas that people would go hungry without food stamps or children would be malnourished without the federal school lunch program, nothing could be further from the truth. There is no reason to believe that handicapped parking would disappear if left up to the free market. In fact, a proliferation of special parking spaces could occur if businesses were allowed to manage their own parking.

Businesses that wanted to cater to the handicapped would certainly not remove any of their handicapped parking spaces. To the contrary, they might even add more of these spaces. Businesses that don’t see many handicapped patrons (like Home Depot, which has the largest number of handicapped parking spaces of any store in the city where I live [Pensacola, Fla.]) might cut back the number of their handicapped parking spaces to a reasonable number.

But suppose a business owner "hates" the handicapped? Suppose he removes every last handicapped parking space from his parking lot? Well, he will probably lose business, and not just from the handicapped. People with handicapped family members, advocates for the disabled, or individuals who are concerned about those with disabilities might also choose to have nothing to do with that particular business.

The free market is a wonderful thing. Without government handicapping the market, business owners are free to cater to a diverse clientele, a select clientele, or somewhere in between. The options are endless, but only if parking, and all seemingly mundane activities, are left to the free market instead of the government.

Handicapped parking, like flag burning, free speech, and discrimination, is a private property issue. Let’s analyze two current practices.

First, the federal and state governments pass handicapped parking laws, and the local agencies enforce them by proxy. No matter how private you believe your property is—a small law firm, a dance studio, a picture frame shop—some of your property, the most desirable part of your property, must be reserved by order of government decree.

There is a strong symbolizing here, not unlike that associated with a conquering army and its flag. The handicapped parking sign serves as a constant reminder that the state is supreme and may take the first proceeds of anything you do.

Second, on the question of whether private business will reserve spots: many local grocery stories reserve their prime parking real estate for expectant mothers, complete with charming signs decorated in blue and pink. There is nothing official about it. Nor is it enforced. You don’t get a ticket if you park there. No one is arrested if they are not used for the right purposes.

Still, no one not expecting would dare park there. The gesture of placing this sign there not only fails to annoy; it pleases people to think that the store management is thinking of others.

So there we have it: two signs, two enforcement agencies, two effects, one voluntary and one coercive. Which is the better model for society?


Laurence M. Vance is a freelance writer and an adjunct instructor in accounting and economics at Pensacola Junior College in Pensacola, Fla. (Vancepub@


Contact Laurence M. Vance

Laurence M. Vance is an Associated Scholar of the Mises Institute, columnist and policy adviser for the Future of Freedom Foundation, and a columnist, blogger, and book reviewer at He is also the author of Gun Control and the Second AmendmentThe War on Drugs Is a War on Freedom, and War, Empire and the Military: Essays on the Follies of War and U.S. Foreign Policy. His newest books are Free Trade or Protectionism? and The Free Society. Visit his website:

Cite This Article

Vance, Laurence M. "Who Owns the Parking Lots?" The Free Market 26, no. 10 (October 2005).