In the transportation world, it is politically correct to jump on the diamond lane bandwagon, in the name of reduced traffic and better air. Caltrans plans to add these so-called high-occupancy vehicle lanes to virtually every freeway in the region.
The reality is, however, that the California Department of Transportation has unwittingly found the best way to increase traffic congestion on the freeways, make air quality worse and encourage urban sprawl.
A critical look at HOV lanes shows that they achieve the opposite of their intended purpose. They won't take cars off the road; they won't reduce air pollution; they won't speed up travel time, and they won't make freeways safer.
Caltrans, formerly the California Department of Highways, should get out of social engineering and back into highway engineering.
If the public wanted to car-pool, it would do so without government intervention. Obviously drivers are voting with their gas pedals. Commuters who want to share rides don't need Big Brother's help. Caltrans and its political supporters try to make us feel guilty because we don't schlep someone else along with us every time we get behind the wheel.
There are many sound reasons why people opt for solo driving. Dollar for dollar it is cheaper than public transit, and it is far more flexible, because it takes you from door to door. Nothing beats driving your own car. You can do errands on the way to your destination, stop as long as you like and do it at your own convenience. You are in control of the transportation schedule.
The last time we looked at the DMV Driver's Handbook, it was still legal to drive alone. Solo driving is a right and a benefit most people are willing to pay dearly for. It is the ideal sought after by almost every commuter squeezed into some form of collectivized transportation anywhere in the world. Every time a solo driver buys a gallon of gas, he or she pays a steep fuel tax for the privilege of using the roadways.
An even more basic argument against HOV lanes is the matter of fairness. HOV lanes discriminate against the vast majority of those who, by the nature of their work, have no choice but to drive alone. Salespeople, commercial drivers, part-time workers and those who do not have regular hours have few options.
Service workers and maintenance people, such as electricians and plumbers, who make calls throughout the day, are usually unable to car-pool. An indirect cost of HOV lanes is borne by every householder who must pay the extra expense incurred while the plumber sits on the freeway next to an empty car-pool lane, with the clock running.
It takes a massive earthquake to move drivers into car pools and public transit. And they get out as soon as they can. After the Loma Prieta earthquake, more people wound up driving cars alone than ever before. On March 20, The Times reported that "mass transit and car pools accounted for smaller shares of Bay Area traffic than before that quake." There is a gut-level message in that statement.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation recently published a study called "Rethinking HOV." It concluded that HOV lanes do not reduce traffic or air pollution. This is because in an urban area, virtually every square foot of freeway is faced with latent demand. As the study aptly pointed out, "If you build it, they will come."
When Houston opened its HOV lanes, traffic did not clear up for the general purpose driver. Instead, the space left by former solo drivers quickly filled up with new ones who had previously taken the bus, stayed home or taken other routes.
Studies show that some HOV strategies actually worsen air quality. The Chesapeake study states:
"HOV expansion increases the capacity for solo trips by removing some car pools, vans, and buses from the general purpose lanes. Since many commuters calculate the commute trip in terms of time rather than distance, sprawled growth is promoted by the increased general capacity and (temporarily) lessened congestion immediately following new HOV lane construction."
Since HOV lanes encourage suburban sprawl at the outer rim of the region, they ultimately make air quality worse.
Air quality, congestion and economic considerations aside, what about safety and enforcement? How safe is an invitingly empty car-pool lane a few inches from jam-packed mixed-use lanes?
It is difficult if not impossible to enforce HOV lane usage. Should we waste our limited law enforcement resources to catch scofflaws using the HOV lanes? Aren't they better used apprehending drunk drivers and other menaces on the road?
Supporters of the HOV lanes present a false set of alternatives. They say the choice is between jam-packed freeway traffic or a smoothly flowing highway with an HOV lane. This paints a false picture of our options. In this modern society, where we want comfort, convenience and personal security, there is a different set of options. Unfortunately, the only alternatives are either crowded lanes on the freeway versus crowded lanes on the freeway and a crowded HOV lane, worsening sprawl and degraded air quality.