Car pools and high occupancy vehicles to help reduce emissions

Car pools and high occupancy vehicles to help reduce emissions

Unless you’ve been living in a cave in rural New England for the past forty years, you have probably encountered the so-called “high-occupancy vehicle” (HOV) lanes built through many of the more urban areas of the Interstate highway system in the United States. The point of these lanes is to reduce the amount of automobile traffic (and concomitant air pollution) on some of the busiest sections of roadway during peak commuting hours.

So far, it sounds like a pretty reasonable idea. After all, creeping along in bumper-to-bumper traffic at rush hour is hardly the most enjoyable use of a person’s time, so presumably there should be some motivation for people to ride together and use the access-controlled HOV lanes to cut down on their commuting time.

The first HOV lanes I saw required that you have three or four people in your vehicle in order to use the special lane. Nowadays, that has been scaled back to only two. But even at the peak of rush hour, you often see only a trickle of cars in the HOV lane, and they are usually not moving much faster than the main stream of traffic in the unregulated lanes. Why is that? How has the HOV idea failed? I think there are two reasons why HOV lanes don’t seem to work well at present:

The dearth of cars suggests that the majority of drivers consider the inconvenience of sitting in traffic to be less onerous than the inconvenience of sharing a ride and coordinating a schedule with somebody else. Around Puget Sound, where many commuters have to take a ferry to get to work, the prospect of having to wait up to four hours to get a car onto the Seattle-Winslow boat is sufficient to sustain some pretty effective van pool efforts — but in the Boston area, it seems most people would rather suffer in traffic than share a ride. There’s a simple comparison of utility, if ever there was one.

The sluggish movement in the HOV lanes is easier to explain: There is a huge jam-up when the HOV lane merges back into regular traffic at rush hour, and the drivers in the mainstream are even less willing than usual to let anybody from the HOV lane in. After a while, the tailback in the HOV lane is long enough that it spans the length of the regulated area (they’re ordinarily not very long), and the whole thing becomes yet another lane of bumper-to-bumper idiocy. Pretty soon, even people who are willing to carpool realize it’s not worth their time to deal with the HOV lane, and go back to separate vehicles.

So the other day, it occurred to me that if we are really interested in promoting carpools, maybe the solution is not to reward people who share, but to punish people who don’t share. What I mean is, instead of making a high-occupancy vehicle lane for cars carrying two or more occupants, we should make a low-occupancy vehicle lane for cars carrying only one person.

The remaining lanes would be for everybody else. Under this scheme, the back pressure on the LOV users would encourage them to start carpools rather than abandon them, and there would be plenty of space for higher-occupancy vehicles to manoeuver. What’s more, this is an incredibly low-cost thing to set up — in places where there are existing HOV lanes, you just reconfigure the signs a bit.

Oh, sure, there would be some initial expenses associated with enforcing the LOV rules, but I think in the long run, the problem would simply sort itself out: Pulling somebody over from the HOV lane is tricky, so cops usually don’t bother. But pulling a single-occupant vehicle over onto the shoulder of the mainstream is something they do all the time, so it’s no more trouble than running a speeding ticket.* 

Does giving all the single-occupant vehicles just one measly lane seem insane? Perhaps so, but it is only a constant factor of insanity above and beyond a system in which the vast majority of commuters in population-dense areas pollute, increase road building and maintenance expenses, and raise the probability of accidents simply because it’s not convenient to find a better solution.

I’m not advocating that we forbid anybody from driving alone — I do not believe that is something our government should have the right to do. But maybe we could improve things by applying a little leverage to the creative power of all those idle commuters, who are currently wasting their brainpower sitting in traffic.