Kids aren't carpoolers

CALIFORNIANS LOVE carpool lanes — and they're about to get a lot more. Much of the nearly $20 billion in bonds that voters approved in November to fund transportation projects will be spent to build carpool lanes on the state's freeways. On Wednesday, the California Department of Transportation released its list of recommended projects for the first $4.5-billion chunk of the Proposition 1B money, and it calls for devoting nearly all of Los Angeles County's share to carpool lanes on the 5, 10 and 405 freeways.

There's just one problem with this strategy: Carpool lanes don't work. At least not if their purpose is to get commuters to form carpools.

L.A. County's network of carpool lanes is among the nation's most extensive. Yet, according to the U.S. census, even as the construction of carpool lanes has skyrocketed, carpooling has declined — from 20% of commuters in 1980 to 12% in 2000.

The reasons for this are anyone's guess, but it's clear that carpool lanes aren't doing a good job of getting people out of their cars at rush hour.

Research shows that most of the people who use carpool lanes, which typically require two occupants per vehicle, aren't teaming up to get to work. They're usually families going to school, the mall or somewhere else. A mom who is allowed to use the carpool lane because she's got an infant strapped in the back seat is not helping to get cars off the road; that kid wasn't going to be driving even if he weren't sharing a ride.

Meanwhile, many of the state's carpool lanes are at or near capacity; at rush hour they're often as slow as the other lanes. (The Legislature is partly to blame for this. In 2004, it passed a shortsighted law allowing solo drivers of hybrid cars to use carpool lanes. No such incentive was needed to boost the sales of hybrids.) This isn't to say that widening the 5 and 405, as Caltrans proposes, is a bad idea. But with the state investing billions of dollars in new carpool lanes, it makes sense to revisit the rules on their use to make them more efficient.

Some traffic experts, notably the libertarian scholars at the L.A.-based Reason Foundation, propose turning carpool lanes into toll lanes. Buses and registered vanpools could still use them for free, but everybody else would have to pay. It's a notion worthy of study, especially considering the success of the 91 Express toll lanes in the median of the Riverside Freeway.

A better solution would be to require that at least two occupants of vehicles using carpool lanes be licensed drivers. Though in some ways this would be harder to enforce — police wouldn't know by looking at a car that both occupants had driver's licenses — in other ways it would be simpler because it's easier for police to see two adults in a car than one adult and a small child.

Best of all, it would free up carpool lanes for, well, actual carpoolers.

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