Hybrids in Carpool Lanes: A Nonstarter

Several drawbacks to plan

When a policy proposal has the bipartisan support of Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Democratic state Treasurer Phil Angelides and the Natural Resources Defense Council, can it really be a bad idea? Quite simply, yes. That’s the verdict on the bill now in the state Legislature to allow hybrid cars getting at least 45 miles per gallon to use the carpool lane, even if they hold just one occupant.

Politicians should think seriously about the consequences of this proposal.

Carpool lanes – formally called high occupancy vehicle, or HOV, lanes – were put in place to ease traffic congestion and to improve the efficiency of our freeways. So the first problem with allowing hybrids into HOV lanes is that these additional vehicles will soon use up the carpool lanes’ capacity, making them nearly as congested as the regular lanes.

Proponents, such as Jeff Morales, former director of Caltrans, try to reassure us by noting that over the next 15 years, hybrids will make up, at most, 2% of the vehicle fleet.

But 2% of the 29 million vehicles already on our roads would be 580,000 vehicles. If even half of those hybrids tried to use the HOV lanes at rush hour, the lanes would be swamped. It is predicted by the Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission that by 2010, seven of the region’s 18 HOV corridors will be at capacity, and by 2025 nearly all of them will be congested.

It is true that the measure pending before the Legislature would expire in 2008, but by that time driving in the carpool lane will have become an entitlement for the 50,000 to 70,000 hybrid owners in the state. It probably would prove difficult to prevent the law’s extension. The larger the entitled group becomes, the harder it will be to alter the law.

Also, letting in thousands of hybrid cars probably would create an enforcement nightmare for the California Highway Patrol. Today, a Prius is instantly recognizable as a hybrid. But the hybrids due out in 2005, 2006 and 2007 model years will be identical in appearance to ordinary cars; it’s just an engine option, not a different body style. They would be identified as authorized HOV-lane users only by a small decal.

Once drivers of the nonhybrid versions of these same models catch on, many of them will take their chances in the HOV lanes.

And the implications go far beyond congestion in the HOV lanes and law enforcement. In their original incarnation, HOV lanes were intended to be used for express bus service. Adding congestion to the HOV lanes would destroy the attraction of using regional express bus service – a way to move people quickly and more affordably than building rail lines or other forms of mass transit.

Clogging up the HOV lanes also precludes the possibility of turning some of them into high-occupancy/toll lanes, where single-occupant vehicles are allowed to use the carpool lane if they are willing to pay a toll. Higher tolls are charged electronically during rush hours to manage traffic flow, as has been done for years in San Diego and Orange County. Plans are underway in a dozen other metro areas around the nation for similar toll lanes.

These high-occupancy/toll lanes do three very good things.

First, they give all drivers the option of paying for a faster trip when it’s really important to them.

Second, they add only a limited number of cars to the lane, controlled by the size of the toll. That gives express bus service an uncongested guideway – offering a real speed advantage over freeway driving.

And third, they generate toll revenue to help pay for expanding the HOV/toll system.

When I was a boy, my father taught me the importance of always selecting the right tool for the job. Carpool lanes are a tool for managing traffic and making our freeways flow better. There are many ways public policy can encourage less-polluting and more energy-efficient vehicles. But trying to make HOV lanes solve energy and emissions problems is using the wrong tool for the job.

Robert W. Poole, Jr. is Director of Transportation Studies and founder of Reason Foundation.