HOT not HOV
By John Latta
Congestion on busy roads is not going anywhere; we’ll have it for a long time to come. But one measure used to combat it (and also fight back against high gas prices that are also not going anywhere) is going away. Carpooling.
So do carpool lanes still make traffic management sense and, for that matter, economic sense today? Perhaps HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) lanes should become HOT (high-occupancy toll) lanes, essentially giving cars with, say, three or more people a free ride by tolling vehicles in those lanes with only one or two people in them.
A 2009 Census Bureau survey shows that carpooling peaked way back in 1980. That year, they calculate the carpooling rate at almost 20 percent (19.7 percent). By 1990 it was 13.4 percent and, in 2000, it was 12.2 percent. By 2009, it was just 10 percent. A rate for Hispanics boosted, according to the Census, by new immigrants sharing rides to jobs, was at 19 percent in 2009. But it had been 28 percent in 2000.
This fall “has confounded efforts by urban planners,” according to a recent New York Times look into the state of carpooling.
Robert Poole, director of transportation studies at the Reason Foundation, says the decline has its roots in two opposing trends. “On the one hand we had DOTs and metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) doing everything they could think of to encourage carpools. While freeway expansion slowed dramatically during the past three decades, when new lanes did get added, they were mostly carpool lanes,” says Poole. “But during this same three decades, two-earner households became the dominant trend, and those jobs were typically in two different suburban directions. Car ownership grew twice as fast as population during this period – population up by about a third, car ownership up by nearly 60 percent. And the ongoing suburbanization of jobs has made arranging and sustaining carpools increasingly problematic.”
The Clean Air Act in 1990 would have required many companies to develop plans to increase carpooling and mass transit use, as the Times points out, but “Congress, after hearing from critics who said the proposal was unworkable, scrapped the idea in the mid-’90s.”
But today we have social media, and we should be able to use the likes of Twitter and FourSquare to help us find efficient and easy-to-use shared rides. And yet the carpooling rates continue to decline. However, a number of studies are trying to find formulae that would increase casual carpooling, using technology and social media to bring together potential ride-sharers who do not know of each other’s existence.
Carpool’s HOV lanes are also a source of frustration, as Poole points out. They can become crowded and offer very little travel-time saving. Or they may be relatively empty while the “everybody-else” lanes next to them are packed and slow, another frustrating inefficiency. They can be packed with cars carrying family members, cars that would be loaded with the same people without HOV lanes. In this case, the rationale of taking vehicles off the road is lost. A Transportation Research Board paper that analyzed 2001 National Household Travel Survey data found that a vast majority of HOV trips were trips undertaken with family for discretionary activity purposes. Given that virtually all these HOV trips would have been undertaken regardless of the presence of an HOV lane, say the researchers, one could question the potential efficacy of implementing a pure HOV lane.
Poole identifies another part of the modern carpooling problem. While federal rules require HOV lanes to maintain an average speed of 45 mph or better during peak periods, it just doesn’t happen. But the Feds don’t push it, he says, and so local transportation officials don’t push to require at least three people in the vehicle, an efficiency over the two-person rule but a potentially unpopular one. But if that speed average was maintained, he argues, getting three people in a pool car would be a lot easier. “I think Congress should include enforcement of this performance standard in its Reauthorization measure,” says Poole. “It would make it much easier for state and local officials to do what they should be doing – raising the occupancy rate – since they could tell those who complain that, ‘The Feds made us do it.’ This modest reform is long overdue.”
The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) says HOT lanes combine HOV and pricing strategies by allowing single-occupancy vehicles to gain access to HOV lanes by paying a toll. The lanes are “managed” through pricing to maintain free flow conditions even during the height of rush hours. The appeal of this concept is tri-fold:
It expands mobility options in congested urban areas by providing an opportunity for reliable travel times to users prepared to pay a significant premium for this service;
It generates a new source of revenue that can be used to pay for transportation improvements, including enhanced transit service; and
It improves the efficiency of HOV facilities, which is especially important given the recent decline in HOV mode share in 36 of the 40 largest metro areas.
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