Financial District

| April 1, 2011

HOT not HOV

Tweaking old-fashioned busy lanes could smooth flow

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.

The combined ability of HOT operations to introduce additional traffic to existing HOV facilities, while using price and other management techniques to control the number of additional motorists and maintain high service levels, renders the HOT lane concept a promising means of reducing congestion and improving service on the existing highway system, says FHWA.

Slugging

There are, of course, still carpools. Washington, D.C., has more than its share, and that city has also given us “slugging” and “slug-lines.” Simply, a driver heading for the city stops at a predetermined spot, often a bus stop, where people are waiting in (slug) lines for rides. He calls out his destination and one, or two or three people hop in, and off they go. The passengers don’t pay the driver anything because he benefits by using HOV lanes. Everyone wins.

There seems to be some doubt on where the term comes from. The best explanation appears to be that when bus drivers saw lines of people at stops, they’d pull and open the doors. But sometimes none of the people got on, and other times only a few. The nonriders were, of course, waiting for an instant carpool. Since “slug” is slang for a take token used by cheating bus riders, drivers began calling the nonriders slugs.

Productivity Demands Infrastructure Upgrade

By John Latta

If America is more productive, she will be more competitive is the message beyond a new report.

The report, Growth and Renewal in the United States: Retooling America’s economic engine from the McKinsey Global Institute, identifies productivity as the key factor with reigniting growth and renewing the American economy. Productivity is “the engine that has powered U.S. growth in recent decades and has been a source of U.S. competitiveness,” say the researchers. “The United States needs to accelerate labor productivity growth to a rate not seen since the 1960s.”

While the report concedes this a daunting challenge, the researchers not only say it can be done – to a point of actually outperforming historic GDP growth rates – but also identify seven “major imperatives” that need to be addressed by business leaders and policy makers if it is to happen:

1. Drive productivity gains in the public and regulated sectors.

2. Reinvigorate the innovation economy.

3. Develop the U.S. talent pool to match the economy of the future and harness the full capabilities of the U.S. population.

4. Build 21st-century infrastructure.

5. Enhance the competitiveness of the U.S. business and regulatory environment.

6. Embrace the energy productivity challenge.

7. Harness regional and local capabilities to boost overall U.S. growth and productivity.

About #4.

The report states bluntly that America’s infrastructure is inadequate to meet the needs of a growing, dynamic economy. It will either astonish or frustrate most American to see this country ranked 23rd in the world for its overall infrastructure. That infrastructure, including transportation, has been declining and now reached this miserable rating that is “undermining competitiveness” in the global economy.

“Multinational companies consistently rank infrastructure among the top four criteria they use to make decisions about where to invest,” says the report. There is also considerable scope for the United States to “identify and implement leading-edge practices in infrastructure development from project selection to financing and delivery, sometimes using the vehicle of public-private partnerships.”

There is also scope to improve the use of demand-management techniques; for example, city center congestion pricing and bridge tolls that vary by time of day, says the McKinsey researchers.v

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