After many years of grinding and gritting his teeth through afternoon freeway traffic between his job in Torrance and his home in Garden Grove, Walter Crossen has something to smile about.
Thanks to an experimental car-pool lane added to the eastbound Artesia Freeway on June 10, Crossen said he has cut 20 minutes off his normal 80-minute commute home.
While other drivers creep along in lanes backed bumper to bumper, Crossen and the three other people he commutes with breeze along at 55 m.p.h.
"The lane is a big timesaver. It is working very well. It will encourage people to car pool," said Crossen, 62, who commutes daily to AiResearch Manufacturing Co. where he is a manager in the engineering department.
Although only 200 to 500 vehicles an hour have used the special lane so far, California Department of Transportation officials say that in the first week and a half of operation, it has worked pretty much as expected. They say they anticipate that traffic will pick up next week when the definition of a legal car pool will change from three people to two people.
They also say they had anticipated that cheaters would not be able to resist the free-flowing lane, a problem that has kept the California Highway Patrol busy along the eight-mile stretch from Central Avenue in Compton to the San Gabriel River (605) Freeway.
"Public reaction during the first week has been positive. Things are going very well," said David H. Roper, deputy district director of traffic operations for Caltrans.
If this one-year demonstration project is successful, similar lanes could be opened to relieve rush-hour traffic on other freeways, Roper said.
The car-pool lane--carved out of the existing emergency lane with a double yellow line separating it from regular traffic--currently is open from 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays only to buses and vehicles with three or more occupants. Motorists enter the lane, along the median strip of eastbound California 91, at Central Avenue in Compton. The only other entrance is just west of Cherry Avenue, which accommodates traffic joining the 91 Freeway from the Long Beach Freeway.
The special lane ends at the 605 Freeway in Cerritos where motorists can continue on either freeway. The only other exit is at Lakewood Boulevard in Bellflower.
The eight-mile trip in the four other regular lanes can take between 25 and 35 minutes, contrasted with eight to 10 minutes on the special lane, according to data gathered by Caltrans during the first week.
Only one minor accident, a car hitting a rock in the roadway, has been reported.
However, Roper concedes that there have been problems.
Some of the difficulties, he said, will be solved with better signs. For instance, some motorists have been confused by signs that state, "Bus, car pool only, 3 p.m. to 7 p.m." Non-car-pooling motorists have incorrectly assumed that meant it was "OK to drive the other 20 hours and on the weekends."
To solve the problem, Caltrans is scheduled to place an "emergency parking only" sign at Central Avenue every day after the 7 p.m. closure. This will be manually changed until perhaps an electrically operated sign can be installed, Roper said.
In addition to posting clearer signs, other changes include allowing drivers more distance to leave the special lane and merge into regular traffic and better identification of the CHP "emergency pocket," the CHP uses to stop violators. The emergency pocket is a quarter-mile-long turnout with a concrete barrier adjacent to the car-pool lane to protect officers while observing traffic.
Officers were kept busy during the first week and a half stopping more than 60 violators during each four-hour period. Some violators are not stopped.
An estimated 30% of the vehicles using the lane had fewer than three persons in them, according to Caltrans statistics. About half of them were single drivers, while the other half had two persons.
Most Get Only Warnings
Most of those drivers were getting only verbal warnings when pulled over, CHP Capt. Kenneth Rude said. Rude is commander of the Westminster CHP office, which provides officers for patroling most of the eight-mile freeway stretch.
"Normally, when we start something new like this, we give the public a grace period before we give tickets. We are trying to educate the public on the lane," said Kevin Dougherty, CHP public affairs officer.
The excuses for using the lane "have ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous," CHP Officer Paul Gollogly said. The excuses include:
- "I was late for a doctor's appointment."
- "I got in by accident and couldn't get out."
- "I was in a hurry. I was late. I had to pick up the kids from school."
- "We have to get to the airport in Long Beach."
- "I don't know why I shouldn't be able to use the lane. All of that empty space is just going to waste."
Just Can't Resist
Others stuck in bumper to bumper traffic, like the motorcyclist who complained about the empty lane, say they just cannot resist.
"I'm sorry. I'm really sorry. I know it was wrong. But I was in a hurry. I was just trying to get home faster," said Jody Cardenas of Yucca Valley.
The majority of the violators are genuinely confused, apologetic and very happy when they are given warnings rather than fines, CHP Officer Bill Powell said.
Tickets have been issued, however, to motorists for other unrelated violations, including speeding. "We have people driving 70 m.p.h. in that lane," Gollogly said.
One of the most dangerous violations is being committed by drivers who, upon seeing the officers, try to merge back into the regular traffic. They are given tickets for impeding traffic.
"They come to a complete stop. Traffic behind them piles up. We've been lucky we haven't had any accident," Gollogly said.
Lane Cutting Feared
The frustrated driver who is stuck in traffic in the adjacent lane is also of great concern to some motorists in the special lane.
"That's the most tensed and uneasy feeling. You are going along at 55 m.p.h. and you are afraid that someone might cut into the lane in front of you," said Terry Brennan, who works for Aerospace Corp. in El Segundo and lives in Buena Park. He rides in a 13-person van pool.
CHP officers get help from the car-pool drivers who occasionally yell to get their attention and inform them of illegal drivers in the lane. Many applaud as they observe the officers pull over the violators.
"People really have been nice," Gollogly said. "They want to see this work."
Caltrans said that of the four to five phone calls it receives daily about the lane, only one was "extremely negative."
Maybe that was the motorist stuck in slowed traffic Friday afternoon who screamed to CHP officers. "When are you going to stop this?" he shouted, finishing with a vulgarity.