It’s Time to Replace HOV Lanes

Employer-certified HOT-3 lanes offer a solution to the problems plaguing many HOV lanes

The moment of truth for HOV lanes has arrived in California. In June, the federal government informed Caltrans that the state is out of compliance with minimum federal standards that require such lanes to flow at an average rush-hour speed of at least 45 mph. The standard exists because HOV lanes are supposed to reward those who give up solo driving (by joining a carpool) with faster trips. On some of the most-congested Southern California freeways, rush-hour HOV lanes run at 10 mph or less. Congestion is also plaguing several HOV lanes in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Thus far, the fixes being discussed by Caltrans are mostly tinkering, such as limiting the number of hybrids allowed to use the lanes, extending the hours that “diamond lane” versions are in operation, standardizing policy on where drivers can enter and exit HOV lanes, beefing up patrol-car enforcement, and (perhaps) increasing the required occupancy from two persons to three. (Currently, only a handful of California’s HOV lanes require three occupants.)

How California addresses this problem matters, since the state has far more HOV lanes (1,350 lane-miles worth) than any other state, and plans to add 950 lane-miles more. Getting this wrong will have major consequences for California motorists, whereas breaking new ground could set an example for other states that are nowhere near as far along in implementing HOV or HOT lanes.

The proposed solutions don’t cope with the real failings of HOV lanes as currently operated in America. First, they don’t address the major problem of “fampooling.” As Alan Pisarski, author of Commuting in America, has concluded, the traditional commuter carpool (two or more employees riding together to work) has “functionally disappeared.” Pisarski estimates that up to 80% of “carpools” consist of family members who would be riding together anyway; hence, “fampools” result in no reduction in rush-hour traffic, but simply get a slightly faster ride in the HOV lane.

Enforcement is the second problem. There is still no reliable technology for counting heads in moving vehicles (especially when eligible heads include infants in back-seat car-seats). Reliable figures on outright cheating in HOV lanes are hard to come by, but in traffic studies I’ve seen recently, violation rates are often in the 20% range.

The third problem is that the congestion relief offered by HOV lanes is not sustainable. Over time, in growing metro areas, the lanes fill up and lose their time-saving advantage. If and when the political hurdles to upping the requirement from HOV-2 to HOV-3 can be overcome, there is then a new problem of “empty-lane syndrome,” since three-person carpools (or “fampools”) are a lot harder to form and maintain than two-person ones. Hence, the powerful case for switching from HOV to HOT (which is apparently not part of Caltrans’ set of near-term options).

In fact, it is only those metro areas that are looking seriously at priced lanes that are coming to grips with the shortcomings of HOV lanes. In San Diego, SANDAG has funded research on ways of improving HOT lanes enforcement. One of the alternatives proposed in that research was to redefine carpool to address the “fampool” problem and return to the original commuter ride-sharing/trip-reduction purpose of HOV lanes. The breakthrough idea was to limit eligibility for free passage to pre-registered carpools and vanpools. Those vehicles would get specially coded transponders authorizing free passage. Hence, manual enforcement (via patrol cars) could be eliminated-no more counting heads. Instead, the burden would be on whoever registered the carpool-presumably employers participating in a ride-sharing program-to make sure the carpool was, and remained, legitimate and hence entitled to use the transponder.

To the best of my knowledge, the first jurisdiction that plans to do this is the Florida DOT. In their Urban Partnership proposal to the U.S. DOT for converting the HOV lanes on I-95 in Miami to managed lanes, they would simultaneously up the occupancy required for free passage from two to three and limit eligibility to employer-certified carpools. If they actually implement the proposed I-95 Express Lanes in this manner, it will be a national breakthrough.

In a paper I presented at the Institute of Transportation Engineers technical conference in San Diego this spring, I crunched some numbers to compare the performance of various types of HOV, HOT and express toll lanes. In that analysis, the best combination of person throughput and revenue was what I defined as SHOT (super high occupancy toll) lanes, in which only buses and vanpools went for free. I have just added a HOT-3EC alternative to that spreadsheet, and am pleased to see that it produces almost as much revenue (85%) as the SHOT lane, and 93% as much person throughput. So the Employer-Certified HOT-3 configuration would appear to be a way to continue an explicit incentive for ride-sharing without giving away most of the revenue potential (as is done with today’s common HOT-2 configurations).

I still think the pure SHOT or Express Toll Lane is the superior way to go. And for urban areas like Atlanta with few or no HOV lanes already in place, that approach is simpler and maximizes revenue. But in places like Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area, with very extensive HOV systems (and a large HOV user base), the HOT-3EC approach would be a realistic compromise. It would solve all three problems that plague HOV lanes-“fampools,” enforcement, and sustainability-while producing robust revenue for building out a seamless network of priced lanes.

Robert Poole is director of transportation policy and Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow at Reason Foundation. Poole, an MIT-trained engineer, has advised the Ronald Reagan, the George H.W. Bush, the Clinton, and the George W. Bush administrations.

Surface Transportation

In the field of surface transportation, Poole has advised the Federal Highway Administration, the Federal Transit Administration, the White House Office of Policy Development, National Economic Council, Government Accountability Office, and state DOTs in numerous states.

Poole's 1988 policy paper proposing privately financed toll lanes to relieve congestion directly inspired California's landmark private tollway law (AB 680), which authorized four pilot toll projects including the successful 91 Express Lanes in Orange County. More than 20 other states and the federal government have since enacted similar public-private partnership legislation. In 1993, Poole oversaw a study that coined the term HOT (high-occupancy toll) Lanes, a term which has become widely accepted since.

California Gov. Pete Wilson appointed Poole to the California's Commission on Transportation Investment and he also served on the Caltrans Privatization Advisory Steering Committee, where he helped oversee the implementation of AB 680.

From 2003 to 2005, he was a member of the Transportation Research Board's special committee on the long-term viability of the fuel tax for highway finance. In 2008 he served as a member of the Texas Study Committee on Private Participation in Toll Roads, appointed by Gov. Rick Perry. In 2009, he was a member of an Expert Review Panel for Washington State DOT, advising on a $1.5 billion toll mega-project. In 2010, he was a member of the transportation transition team for Florida's Governor-elect Rick Scott. He is a member of two TRB standing committees: Congestion Pricing and Managed Lanes.


Poole is a member of the Government Accountability Office's National Aviation Studies Advisory Panel and he has testified before the House and Senate's aviation subcommittees on numerous occasions. Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Poole consulted the White House Domestic Policy Council and the leadership of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee.

He has also advised the Federal Aviation Administration, Office of the Secretary of Transportation, White House Office of Policy Development, National Performance Review, National Economic Council, and the National Civil Aviation Review Commission on aviation issues. Poole is a member of the Critical Infrastructure Council of the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation and of the Air Traffic Control Association.

Poole was among the first to propose the commercialization of the U.S. air traffic control system, and his work in this field has helped shape proposals for a U.S. air traffic control corporation. A version of his corporation concept was implemented in Canada in 1996 and was more recently endorsed by several former top FAA administrators.

Poole's studies also launched a national debate on airport privatization in the United States. He advised both the FAA and local officials during the 1989-90 controversy over the proposed privatization of Albany (NY) Airport. His policy research on this issue helped inspire Congress' 1996 enactment of the Airport Privatization Pilot Program and the privatization of Indianapolis' airport management under Mayor Steve Goldsmith.

General Background

Robert Poole co-founded the Reason Foundation with Manny Klausner and Tibor Machan in 1978, and served as its president and CEO from then until the end of 2000. He was a member of the Bush-Cheney transition team in 2000. Over the years, he has advised the Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and George W. Bush administrations on privatization and transportation policy.

Poole is credited as the first person to use the term "privatization" to refer to the contracting-out of public services and is the author of the first-ever book on privatization, Cutting Back City Hall, published by Universe Books in 1980. He is also editor of the books Instead of Regulation: Alternatives to Federal Regulatory Agencies (Lexington Books, 1981), Defending a Free Society (Lexington Books, 1984), and Unnatural Monopolies (Lexington Books, 1985). He also co-edited the book Free Minds & Free Markets: 25 Years of Reason (Pacific Research Institute, 1993).

Poole has written hundreds of articles, papers, and policy studies on privatization and transportation issues. His popular writings have appeared in national newspapers, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Forbes, and numerous other publications. He has also been a guest on network television programs such as Good Morning America, NBC's Nightly News, ABC's World News Tonight, and the CBS Evening News. Poole writes a monthly column on transportation issues for Public Works Financing.

Poole earned his B.S. and M.S. in mechanical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and did graduate work in operations research at New York University.