Time to Ditch Carpool Lanes for Toll Lanes

Pregnant drivers, fam-pools aren't what HOV lanes were designed for

When is a carpool really a carpool? An Arizona woman fought her carpool ticket on the grounds that she did have two people in her car-herself and her unborn child. The judge didn’t buy it and now Candace Dickinson must pay up: $367 for improper use of a High Occupancy Vehicle lane.

Although this case has been resolved, confusion over the purpose of carpool lanes remains. And it might be time to ditch the carpool lane concept entirely.

Even the judge who ruled against Dickinson seemed confused. “The law is meant to fill empty space in a vehicle,” he declared. Not exactly. The carpool lane concept was forged during the 1970s oil crisis when policymakers were keen on achieving goals like conserving energy and cutting congestion. Carpooling was less about filling seats in cars and more about taking cars off the road.

Going back farther, wartime rationing discouraged driving alone, and publicity campaigns even tied carpooling to the war effort. “When you ride alone, you ride with Hitler,” scolded one World War II-era advertisement. Over the years, wealth grew and household sizes shrunk. Today America is home to more cars than licensed drivers, and even about 80 percent of poor households own at least one car.

And despite the prevalence of highly-caffeinated public service announcements-“Pick a day, any day, rideshare is the easy way!”-many carpoolers have discovered that ridesharing isn’t exactly easy. Suburbanization has shaken up traditional commuting patterns, making it harder to coordinate carpools. How about flexibility? Carpooling often compromises that too. What if you need to stay at work late but your carpool buddy is itching to leave? What if you have to pick up a sick child from school?

The rise of wealth and suburbanization proved much stronger than government action. Just when the U.S. ramped-up carpool lane construction, carpooling actually began to slide. According to the U.S. Census Bureau carpool commuting peaked in 1980 when roughly 20 percent of workers did it. By 2000, carpooling’s market share fell to about 12 percent and today it stands at about 10 percent. Carpooling has even slipped in metro areas like San Francisco and Washington, D.C. where commuters have plenty of carpool lanes and aren’t shy about “slugging,” that is carpooling with strangers. Carpooling has tumbled in LA, even though the region is home to the nation’s most extensive network of carpool lanes.

And as Ms. Dickinson’s case shows, even those who carpool aren’t necessarily taking cars off the road. Why Dickinson’s wasn’t a “real” carpool doesn’t have anything to do with the debate about when life begins. The reason is simple: fetuses can’t drive. Carpooling doesn’t take cars off the road if cars are just being filled up with passengers who wouldn’t be driving anyway. It might be convenient for a mom to take her daughter to soccer practice via the carpool lane, but if the child is under the legal driving age, this sort of carpool does not spare the road from an extra car. Consider a husband and wife driving together. As long as they were going to travel together anyway-perhaps they’re off to the movies-this carpool doesn’t take cars off the road either.

In the 1990s author Alan Pisarki coined the term “fampool” to describe those who would travel together with or without carpool lanes. He noticed that most modern carpooling is really fampooling. In Southern California, for example, 55 percent of the region’s carpools are really fampools.

The courts may have dealt with “pregpools,” but leaders have been slow to recognize how fampooling and demographic shifts have complicated the case for carpool lanes. Gov. Schwarzenegger just signed a bill that will speed up construction of a carpool lane on the 405 and there are plans to add over 250 carpool lane-miles to LA County in coming decades. The current trend of opening carpool lanes to hybrid car owners will likely make policymakers even more squeamish about turning away from carpool lanes. There are better ways to use all that roadway space, but as long as leaders commit us to carpool lanes, we probably won’t be able to explore them.

Ted Balaker is the Jacobs Fellow at Reason Foundation and co-author of the study Virtual Exclusive Busways: Improving Urban Transit While Relieving Congestion, which argues for replacing HOV facilities with lanes that would be tolled for solo motorists and free for transit buses and vanpools.

Ted Balaker is an award-winning filmmaker, journalist, and founding partner of Korchula Productions, a film and new media production company devoted to making important ideas entertaining.

Ted is the director of Can We Take a Joke?, a Korchula Productions feature documentary about the collision between comedy and outrage culture featuring comedians such as Gilbert Gottfried, Penn Jillette, Jim Norton, Lisa Lampanelli, and Adam Carolla. Ted is producing Little Pink House, a Korchula Productions feature narrative about about Susette Kelo's historic fight to save her beloved home and neighborhood. The film stars two-time Academy Award nominee Catherine Keener (Capote, Being John Malkovich, The 40-Year-Old Virgin) and Emmy nominee Jeanne Tripplehorn (Big Love, The Firm, Basic Instinct).

Ted produced the award-winning shorts The Conversation and Cute Couple. He is an executive producer on the feature documentary Honor Flight, and produced the film's first trailer, which attracted more than 4.5 million views. The Honor Flight premiere attracted an audience of more than 28,000 and set the Guinness World Record for largest film screening in history.

Ted is a founding member of ReasonTV, where he produced hundreds of videos and documentary shorts, including Raiding California, which introduced a nationwide audience to the Charles Lynch medical marijuana case.

Ted is co-creator of The Drew Carey Project, a series of documentary shorts hosted by Drew Carey, and creator of the comedic series Don't Cops Have Better Things to Do? and Nanny of the Month.

His ReasonTV contributions have been featured by The Wall Street Journal, MSNBC, Fox News Channel, and on the he John Stossel Special Bailouts and Bull, a first-of-its-kind joint project between ABC News and ReasonTV.

During Ted's tenure, ReasonTV received the Templeton Freedom Award for Innovative Media and in 2008 Businessweek recognized his short Where's My Bailout? (created with Courtney Balaker) as among the best of bailout humor.

Prior to joining Reason, Ted spent five years producing at ABC Network News, producing hour-long specials and 20/20 segments on topics ranging from free speech to addiction.

Ted's written work has appeared in dozens of publications, including The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Reason magazine, The Washington Post, and USA TODAY. He is the author or co-author of 11 studies on topics ranging from urban policy to global trade, and his research has been presented before organizations such as the Mont Pelerin Society and the American Economic Association.

Ted is co-author (with Sam Staley) of the book The Road More Traveled (Rowman & Littlefield, 2006), which Chapman University's Joel Kotkin says "should be required reading, not only for planners and their students, but for anyone who loves cities and wants them to thrive."

Ted has appeared on many radio and television programs, including ABC World News Tonight and the CBS Evening News, and has interviewed hundreds of thinkers and innovators, ranging from X Prize recipient and private spaceflight pioneer Burt Rutan to Templeton Prize-winning biologist and philosopher Francisco Ayala.

Ted graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of California, Irvine with degrees in political science and English.