Virgil Soule has an op-ed in WaPo entitled, “HOV: Never Worked, Won’t Work. Can’t We Get Rid of It?” It expresses a view I’ve had since moving to the DC area that has only been reinforced with my daily commute inside the Beltway.
On a recent Friday afternoon, my wife and I were driving south from the Beltway on Interstate 95 in a long stream of slow traffic. The traffic was understandable: Everyone wanted to be somewhere else for the weekend. What was not understandable were the nearly empty high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes running parallel to the four clogged lanes. The lighted sign at the entrance to the open lanes said HOV-3. It soon became apparent, however, that about the only motorists in the HOV lanes were HOV-2 cheaters and single drivers plus the occasional tractor-trailer. Without the HOV restriction, traffic might have been running freely on six lanes instead of crawling along on four.
HOV lanes were established to lure single drivers into carpools to reduce traffic congestion. In the bargain, it was hoped that the concept would reduce exhaust pollution. In principle HOV ought to work, but in reality it hasn’t. HOV has been in use for about 20 years, and commuters still have not rushed to fill the empty space, despite rising fuel prices. From my observation, most vehicles in HOV lanes have one occupant, especially during the high-demand rush hours.
The HOV restriction is more destructive than productive. On I-95 south of the Beltway, the segregated HOV lanes are so underutilized during rush hours that they might as well not exist, and the remaining lane space is inadequate to meet the demand. In the afternoon, traffic on the Beltway’s inner loop upstream of the Interstate 270 exit backs up for miles. The backup occurs because HOV takes away a lane on I-270 and bottlenecks traffic into the remaining lanes. The disruption caused by HOV propagates across all six lanes of the inner loop and continues far upstream.
The function of a highway is to move traffic. The underused HOV lanes degrade the performance of the highway. Abolishing the HOV restriction would provide lane space to allow the highways to run more freely. The highways would be more egalitarian, and everyone would get home sooner.
Some HOV proponents see the traffic congestion endured by single commuters as just punishment for not joining carpools or using public transportation. But this is not the way to solve the nation’s transportation problems.
Indeed not. The only experience I had with HOV lanes prior to moving to Northern Virginia two years ago was while visiting friends in Nashville. Indeed, the idea that the taxpayers would be charged for a road that they couldn’t drive is beyond conception in most of the country.
As Soule says, there is some logic to creating an incentive for people to carpool. In reality, however, it’s a foolish concept. The only places where there is any impetus for HOV lanes is in the major urban centers, where traffic is most congested. Unfortunately, those are precisely the places where they can’t work. Insanely high housing prices force people to live several miles from work. It is not at all uncommon for people who work together to live ninety minutes away from one another. The likelihood of many people from the same office living in the same community is rather small. And, for most white collar jobs, work hours can be rather erratic, so being able to count on the ability to coordinate schedules is doubtful even then.
Structuring one’s life around carpool partners is an unreasonable burden. We live in a society that has been built around the automobile. To do much of anything, one must drive. In a place with this much traffic congestion, people tend to compensate by combining trips to minimize their drive time. When I lived in south Alabama, I thought nothing of running to Wal-Mart or the hardware store if I needed an item or two. Now, I try to run errands around traffic, meaning I either do them late in the evening, early on weekend mornings, or on the way home from work. Not only does that keep me out of traffic but the cumulative pattern of people making that calculation reduces traffic congestion.