HOV Lanes: A Politically Popular Disaster

Carpool lanes, like many other forms of transportation investment, appear to make highways and driving more green, making expansion of automobile facilities politically acceptable. This “diet Coke” concept, that slightly improving the environmental impact of driving is “green” transport policy, has been taken to new extremes in California, where gigantic, elaborate systems of Carpool (or HOV) lanes now dot the landscape. In Los Angeles, the El Monte Busway, a parallel 2-lane freeway to the I-10 Freeway between Union Station and El Monte, was the first fixed-guideway transit investment in Los Angeles history, installed by the Southern California Rapid Transit District in 1974. This facility was originally for buses only, a scheme that allowed the two lanes to carry more passengers more quickly than the parallel 10-lane freeway. Disastrously, a few years after its opening, the El Monte Busway was opened to HOV traffic, here meaning any motor vehicle with 3 or more passengers in it during peak hours and 2 or more passengers otherwise. This change cut the busway’s capacity and reduced speeds, making transit less desirable.

So what is the deal with Carpool lanes anyway? Do they work? What is even their intended purpose?

All of these are legitimate questions. Carpool lanes are intended, generally, to alleviate congestion on the “normal” lanes of a freeway and provide an incentive for solo drivers to ride with more people in the car, theoretically increasing person throughput on a corridor. This purpose is often lost in practice, and carpool lane construction is simply a way of “greenwashing” highway capacity increases. Just as with any other expansion of capacity, carpool lane installation eventually increases traffic congestion due to induced demand, the research-proven principle that if you build it, they will come.

Now do they work? Can a carpool lane facility, especially one as elaborate as the Harbor Transitway in the photograph above, increase the average occupancy of automobiles in a corridor? In one word, no. The installation of carpool lanes along a freeway has been shown to increase carpooling by four percent. Such a tiny number of carpoolers would suggest that any money spent on highway expansion should be spent on general capacity improvements, rather than dedicated carpool infrastructure (offramps, grade separations, interchange ramps) that exist, especially in Los Angeles and Orange Counties in California. Like many issues in transportation the continued construction of HOV/Carpool lanes is purely political.

Many special interest groups love highway expansion. These include truck drivers, construction workers’ unions, construction firms and engineering firms. Politicians have a precedent of spending most transportation money on highways, and the lobbying from these groups encourages them to continue. The decision to install carpool infrastructure instead of general highway expansion is often made because it makes projects look more environmentally conscious. It also helps Environmental Impact Statements receive public approval. In everyone’s mind a carpool lane must help the environment, right? The four percent number conclusively proves that this is not the case. Carpool lanes are a waste.

So what to do with current carpool lane infrastructure? Use it in a more efficient manner: convert most or all of California’s High Occupancy Vehicle lanes into Bus-Only Lanes, all day, every day. In this post, I vocally complained about moving at five miles per hour in the HOV lane on Interstate 80 coming back from work one day last summer. This HOV lane, from Hercules to the San Francisco Bay Bridge is actually HOV-3, meaning your vehicle must have 3 occupants to use it. Because of lax enforcement and the sheer volume of cars, this lane moves just as slowly as the “regular” freeway lanes.

Converting this, and all other, HOV lanes to bus-only operation could dramatically increase bus capacity across California. AC Transit’s Transbay Bus Lines would operate more quickly, allowing for an increase in service, and travel times would dramatically decrease, especially during the evening peak. All across California, express bus service could flourish, taking advantage of the near-rediculous carpool infrastructure already in place along many freeways.

Sadly, for this idea to become reality, I would have to wake up on another planet, one where there is NOT a God-ordained right to drive an automobile, as it often seems is the case here in the United States of America. The crisis in operating funds for transit agencies would also prevent this fantasy from becoming reality. Like most of my reflections at the end of these articles, the solution to transportation investment is a large change in priorities, with the government moving as many people as it can, not cars.

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About Karl Tingwald

Civil engineering student at the University of Southern California with a severe transportation compulsion.

Posted on September 23, 2010, in Los Angeles, Policy and Politics, San Francisco Bay Area and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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