As May 19th approaches, and the possibility of yet another budget crisis looms, Californians would do well to consider how well our state government uses and manages its existing resources. Transportation is one example where the state could get a great deal more out of the existing infrastructure while actually saving money.
One of the mundane barriers to a better life that most Californians are readily aware of is traffic congestion. After a short reprieve owing to sky high gasoline prices last summer, Californians have returned to the roads and highways, which mean a return to normal congestion levels. If the state government is truly interested in reducing congestion while improving the economy, they will consider fundamental reform of High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes, those mostly empty lanes on the freeway with the big white painted diamonds.
The rationale behind HOV lanes is that they reduce congestion by promoting car pooling, which reduces the number of vehicles on the road and thereby reduces pollution. Unfortunately for commuters and taxpayers, HOV lanes fail to relieve congestion or cut emissions. And equally as important, they reduce the overall efficiency of our transportation networks.
A number of studies have documented HOV lane failures. For instance, Professor Pravin Varaiya of UC Berkeley completed a study of California’s HOV lanes for Berkeley’s Institute of Transportation Studies. His study analyzed peak traffic data covering 1,171 miles of lanes, most of which exist in the south (803 miles).
Varaiya’s study includes a number of conclusions: (1) HOV lanes reduced transportation capacity by some 20 percent compared to multi-lane freeways, (2) they tended to be under-used, (3) they did not measurably increase car-pooling, and (4) they did not reduce overall congestion. The results of his evaluative study are pretty clear: HOV lanes failed to achieve any of their stated goals.
In addition, transportation expert Alan Pisarski has found that HOV lane driving consists primarily of family members with similar destinations and schedules. The incremental reduction in congestion and pollutants is almost zero when the car pooling is with family members since there is a high probability they would have carpooled in the absence of HOV lanes. As an example, a husband and wife are accorded a benefit in the form of reduced commuting time when they can use an HOV lane, even though the odds are that they would carpool even without such a lane.
Prices matter in transportation, whether for gasoline or lane access. High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes use prices to manage transportation more effectively. HOT lanes allow for single passenger drivers to use the HOV lanes for a fee while still allowing multiple-passenger use at a reduced rate or for free. HOT lanes allow more use of the reserved lane, which frees up traffic on the regular lanes.
HOT lanes are not new to the United States or even California. According to a 2007 study, they are currently in use in Orange County, San Diego, Houston, Denver, Salt Lake City, and Minneapolis, with additional plans for Miami, Washington, D.C., Seattle, Maryland, Austin, Dallas, Atlanta, and Raleigh-Durham.
The ability to charge users a price for using HOT lanes means that they can be used to manage and reduce congestion. Indeed, the same study noting widespread use of HOT lanes concluded that “a free-flowing freeway lane has much higher throughput per hour than a congested freeway lane—about 50 percent more. Orange County’s HOT Lanes represent just one-third of the highway’s lanes but carry half of all traffic during rush hour.”
Better use of existing highways, dedicated monies for maintenance and future expansion, and reduced congestion are just a few of the many benefits available to Californians through expanded use of HOT lanes. At a time when the state is struggling with deficits and its competitiveness, the effective use of existing transportation networks is more critical. We could squeeze much more use and efficiency out of the existing system by moving to HOT lanes, a relatively easy improvement. It’s not the only solution, but it would certainly improve the existing – and congested – status quo.
Jason Clemens is the director of research at the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco, CA (www.pacificresearch.org).