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.