The elites of California freeways — carpoolers and hybrid owners — were adjusting to diverging fortunes as new rules of the road brought better commutes for some and worse commutes for others.
Beginning Friday, owners of hybrid cars were kicked out of carpool lanes and forced to crawl to work with the rest of the solo drivers. Though the change is lamented by hybrid owners, some carpoolers are cheering. Transportation experts say the shift could reduce traffic in carpool lanes at a time when some of the lanes are becoming more congested.
Sharing those lanes has never been easy. Carpoolers have long grumbled that solo drivers should not be allowed to use lanes designed for ridesharing. One common complaint: Hybrid drivers tend to drive slower than carpoolers to maximize their fuel efficiency.
The state used access to carpool lanes as an incentive to get people to buy the fuel-efficient cars. At one point, the yellow stickers required for hybrid owners to use the lanes were such hot commodities that cars with the stickers could gain an additional $1,000 in resale value.
Nadia Kim, who carpools from Torrance to L.A. City Hall, said she was glad to have the hybrids gone. When they were allowed in the lanes, she said, she noticed freeway traffic was slow — and that meant a longer commute.
"Honestly, it's stereotypical, but people in hybrids do tend to drive really slow," she said. "Being someone who doesn't have a sticker, I don't really mind them doing their part to help the environment — but honestly, yeah, I'm kind of glad they'll be in the other lane."
Fred Crane, who has carpooled for about seven years from his home in La Cañada Flintridge to his job in the City of Industry, cannot wait to see solo hybrid drivers back on the other side of the yellow line.
"I figure it's cheating — like, 'Why do they get the special pass?' Plus there's a gazillion hybrids on the road now," he said. Carpoolers are "the ones really making an impact by relieving traffic and saving mileage by having three people in the car. We figure we're doing the admirable thing and those guys are kind of cheating."
Having solo drivers in the carpools also fuels needless jealousy. "People sitting in the normal traffic are, by and large, just jealous of the carpool" lanes as motorists speed along, Crane said.
Hybrid driver Bruce Yonemoto has been dreading the day he can no longer drive his Toyota Prius in the carpool lanes because he knows it will add more time to his commute.
The 60-year-old professor of studio art at UC Irvine, who drives from downtown Los Angeles several times a week, said he often saves more than an hour in congested traffic because of the yellow sticker.
"I get sad looking at the other lanes now," Yonemoto said, adding that he plans to start waiting until 7 p.m. to leave campus in an effort to avoid the worst traffic.
Hybrids made up about 6% of the vehicles in Los Angeles County's carpool lanes. Allison Yoh, associate director of UCLA's Institute of Transportation Studies, said congestion tends to be exponential, meaning that removing even a few cars can have a noticeable effect. As a result, carpoolers are likely to see smoother traffic flow.
The change comes as some of Southern California's carpool lanes are becoming increasingly jammed during rush hour but are still significantly faster than the regular freeway lanes.
A few years ago, Caltrans commissioned a report that found many carpool lanes do not meet federal minimum standards, which call for a traffic flow of 45 mph or faster during rush hour.
The most congested areas included portions of the 405 Freeway from the South Bay through Orange County, and the 5 and 210 freeways. Local officials said that carpool traffic on the 91 could slow to 10 mph during rush hour.
In response to the problem, Caltrans formulated a congestion-reduction strategy.
A total of 85,000 hybrids were allowed to use carpool lanes. Though carpoolers often blamed the hybrids for clogging their lanes, traffic experts have said they believe the bigger problem is simply too many cars on the road during rush hour.
Marco Ruano, chief of freeway operations for Caltrans' District 7, which includes Los Angeles, said hybrids make up such a small percentage of the total number of cars on the freeways that their inclusion in the regular lanes is not likely to result in noticeably more congestion.
"To have a measurable impact on traffic, you really need to talk about significant changes in volume or demand, and this isn't big enough to really create any significant change one way or the other to either the [high-occupancy vehicle] lanes or the general-purpose lanes," Ruano said.
But improvements for carpoolers could be short-lived. That's because as the older hybrids lose their HOV rights, a new group of cars is about to gain carpool privileges.
Up to 40,000 new-generation clean-running vehicles — primarily plug-in hybrids, like the new plug-in Prius — will receive carpool stickers under a new program beginning in 2012. Fully electric cars and vehicles that run on compressed natural gas will also retain their rights to the carpool lane.
A key reason why hybrids were kicked out of the lanes was to prevent further congestion as the new plug-in cars merged in.
Not everyone is glad to see the hybrids go. John Heller, who rides his Vespa scooter in the carpool lanes on the 405 and 5 freeways, said he agrees with carpoolers that the Prius drivers were slowpokes. But he feels bad that they were kicked off.
"A lot of people presumably bought the car in order to have that reward," he said.