HOV Lanes Don't Make Sense

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Appeared in the Province, August 15, 2003
As most commuters are aware, High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes are designated highway and street lanes reserved for buses and vehicles with 2 or more passengers. The rationale behind HOV lanes is that they reduce congestion by reducing the number of vehicles on the road and therefore the amount of pollutants emitted.

Unfortunately for commuters and taxpayers in general, HOV lanes fail to reduce congestion or emissions and instead reduce the efficiency of transportation networks. All regions currently using HOV lanes would be better served to eliminate HOV lanes entirely and begin replacing them with toll lanes.

Among many problems with HOV lanes is that they are seriously underutilized. For HOV lanes to make any sense, they must carry at least the same amount of people as unrestricted lanes. This would require roughly 700-800 vehicles using HOV lanes per hour since unrestricted lanes have the capacity to carry between approximately 1,500 and 1,800 vehicles.

Unfortunately, the GVRD doesn’t maintain statistics on HOV lane usage. Anecdotally, however, the usage rates for HOV lanes in the GVRD come nowhere close to meeting these thresholds for utilization.

Worse still, according to transportation analyst Alan Pisarski of the Eno Transportation Foundation, is the fact that HOV lane activity consists primarily of family members with similar destinations and time schedules. The incremental reduction in congestion and pollutants is near zero since there is a high probability these family members would have carpooled in the absence of HOV lanes.

Joy Dahlgren of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Berkeley has concluded that there are very limited circumstances in which HOV lanes make sense over general-purpose lanes. Her conclusion is that HOV lanes are only effective when there is severe congestion and a high proportion of high occupancy vehicles in general-purpose lanes. The GVRD would be hard pressed to defend any of their HOV lanes based on these criteria.

The GVRD’s own statistics on car ownership bear out the failure of the HOV lanes. In 2002, the number of licensed cars in the GVRD increased 1.9 percent from the previous year, much higher than the overall population increase indicating an increase in the number of cars per household.

It’s not all doom and gloom though since there’s an easy solution. Replace HOV lanes with HOT (High Occupancy / Toll) lanes. HOT lanes allow both high occupancy vehicles and others to use these restricted lanes. The difference is that single occupancy vehicles are charged a toll for using the HOT lane using modern technologies that avoid the need for tollbooths. By increasing the amount of choice, congestion in existing lanes is eased as some drivers choose to purchase reduced commuting times by using the less congested HOT lanes. The HOT lane model could also be used to construct new lanes on a variety of metro-Vancouver highways.

Such reforms have been successfully implemented throughout the United States with enormous success. Commuter times are reduced, highways are properly maintained, and transportation resources are used much more effectively. Replacing HOV lanes with HOT lanes would be a move in the right direction for both commuters and taxpayers.

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