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Car-Pool Lane Test Supported by 75% in Commuter Survey

Times Staff Writer

Reflecting what one official said is a “desperate” search for relief from traffic, a new survey of regular commuters on the Santa Ana and Costa Mesa freeways shows that 75% of them would be willing to try setting aside one new lane in each direction for exclusive use by buses and car pools.

As long as somebody else does the car-pooling.

The armies of commuters crawling slowly up the freeways each day--90% of them alone in their cars--showed a distinct distaste for bringing a fellow employee into the car on the way to work. In fact, only 8% said they would be very likely to do so, even if they then had the use of a special, high-speed lane.

The idea of car-pool lanes, being studied for use on the Costa Mesa Freeway as early as this fall, was far from the first choice among the options available for reducing traffic congestion. More of the commuters favored alternatives such as adding new freeway lanes available to all drivers, or simply building new freeways or rail transit systems.

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Moreover, 67% of the commuters identified some potential disadvantages to car-pool lanes, including enforcement difficulty, safety problems entering and exiting the lanes, and a feeling that new freeway lanes should be available to all drivers, not just car-poolers.

Still, three-fourths of the commuters said they would be willing to give the plan a trial, and about the same number noted potential advantages to the plan, including reduced congestion and commuting times and stronger incentives to car-pool.

“It’s pretty clear that commuters on the 55 (Costa Mesa Freeway) particularly are desperate for traffic relief, and they’re willing to give a try to any idea that they think will relieve congestion,” said Stan Oftelie, executive director of the Orange County Transportation Commission, which commissioned last month’s survey of 600 regular commuters on the two freeways.

Said Orange Mayor Jim Beam, chairman of the commission’s advisory committee on the Costa Mesa Freeway: “I guess the conclusion I would draw is people realize we have a horrendous problem and are even willing to experiment with things when they question whether they’ll actually work.”

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The committee is holding meetings to determine whether two new lanes now being constructed in the median of that six-lane freeway should be restricted to buses and car pools during morning and afternoon rush hours. The committee will make its recommendations to the Transportation Commission in October.

Though a number of technical issues are yet to be resolved, commuter attitudes will play a key role in the final decision. With the results of the recent survey, “It looks pretty positive that we’ll at least be able to give it a try,” Oftelie said.

In making their decision, state and county transportation officials are keenly aware of the public outcry that arose in 1976 when two lanes of the Santa Monica Freeway suddenly were designated diamond lanes and restricted to buses and car-poolers. The lanes were returned to general use a short time later after a lawsuit was filed.

The Orange County proposals, however, do not involve taking existing lanes from solo drivers. Rather, they propose to add new lanes for car pools, either in the median, as in the Costa Mesa Freeway project, or along either edge, under a longer-term widening project proposed for the Santa Ana Freeway.

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The committee also has retained the right to cancel the car-pool trial any time it feels it is not working, Beam added. “I didn’t want to get in the middle of a diamond lane fiasco again, so I laid down some rules,” he said.

Taking up the ride-sharing habit would involve a major behavior shift for most commuters. According to the survey, roughly 90% of them drive to work alone. And even though a substantial majority said they would be willing to give the special lanes a try, only 8% said they would be “very likely” to car-pool because of them.

An additional 18% reported they would be “somewhat likely.” But nearly 65% said they would be “not at all likely” to change their driving habits, even if it meant getting to work more quickly.

Most cited work schedules, lack of other employees to car-pool with and the need to use their cars during work. Commuters said they would have to save 21 minutes on the Santa Ana Freeway to make it worthwhile and 12 minutes on the Costa Mesa Freeway.

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Typically, Santa Ana Freeway commuters drive about 40 minutes to work in the morning and 46 minutes in the evening, covering about 19 miles, the survey found. Costa Mesa Freeway drivers cover six miles in 38 minutes on the way home.

A similar car-pool test has been in effect for the past six weeks on a six-mile stretch of the Artesia (91) Freeway between Central Avenue and the San Gabriel River (605) Freeway.

Early results show that the new car-pool lanes have significantly reduced driving time for both car-poolers and solo drivers, Caltrans regional director Heinz Heckeroth said.

Maximum travel time over the six-mile stretch was reduced from 24 minutes or more to just 12 minutes. Driving the car-pool lane, running at 55 m.p.h. the entire stretch, takes about eight minutes.

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Each lane handles about 1,400 cars per hour during peak periods, approaching its capacity of 1,500 cars, Heckeroth said.

Caltrans officials have found that only about 6% of the cars in the car-pool lane have only one driver. In the first few weeks of the experiment, the car-pool lanes were restricted to cars carrying at least three passengers. Now, drivers with only one passenger may use the lanes, which would be the standard for any new lanes in Orange County.


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