Playing With Politics

A Blog on Law, Politics, Planning, Development, and Other Vices

Some Like it HOT! Explaining Carpool & Toll Lanes

Posted by Roobs on July 9, 2011

Over the past few months, several of my friends have come and asked me to explain HOV (High Occupancy Vehicle) lanes, commonly referred to as carpool lanes and their tolled cousins, HOT (T=Toll) lanes.  They ask me to explain them because in their view, they don’t do anything except take away a lane of traffic from everyone else, discriminate, or double tax the user.  Additionally, they contend that HOV/HOT lanes aren’t that much better at reducing congestion because they usually see them moving at a similar speed as normal lanes.  They don’t understand why planners want to impose more of these lanes on freeways.  To answer this isn’t simple.  It requires the average person to conceptualize a complicated system of interplaying transactions to show how HOV and HOT lanes actually work.  I will, nonetheless, give it a shot.  First, I will explain the way HOV and HOT lanes work, then I will go over the HOV, HOT lane experience in Los Angeles County and then address the two concerns of critics: double taxation and inequitable taxation.

HOV & HOT Lanes

HOV lanes are everywhere on freeways.  They are the “diamond lanes” on the far left side of the freeway where autos with 2 or 3+ persons in them, depending on where you are.  Rules vary by location.  For example, in the San Francisco Bay Area, carpool lanes are only in effect during peak commute hours.  On off hours, they are open to mixed-flow traffic.  In Los Angeles, however, carpool lanes are in effect 24 hours a day.

Carpool lanes offer a choice to drivers.  They are designed to create a lane that purposely excludes some drivers, specifically solo drivers.  In that way, they are trying to encourage commuters to carpool, thus reducing the number of autos on the road – that person who is riding with you is now not driving his own car.  Carpool lanes are meant to travel at faster speeds than the other lanes.  The purpose here is that drivers in mixed-flow lanes will see the faster speeds and then chose to take advantage of that time savings on their next trip.

We’ve all heard the expression, “Time is money”, right?  HOV lanes use your own internal transactions to get you to use them.  If you see a carpool lane going faster and chose to use it, then you are making a conscious transaction to take the extra steps to use the lanes because you value the time you save in those lanes.  If you do not use those lanes, then you clearly do not value the time savings more than driving solo in regular lanes.  Nevertheless, it is your own choice based on the value you personally place on time.

HOT lanes ask a different question than HOV lanes.  The question is no longer whether or not time is money, but how much is your time worth?  As with HOV lanes, you make a choice to use or not use a carpool lane based on the value you place on your time.  But sometimes this isn’t enough because the value is ambiguous.  Its more like a simple yes or no.  Yes, I value my time more or “No, I don’t value my time more”, etc.  This can lead to over use or under use of a HOV lane, which helps lead some people to think that the lane is not working.  HOT lanes give the user an almost tangible grasp on the value of time.  Instead of based on the number of riders in your car, HOT lanes exclude people based on a toll.  This toll varies based on the level of congestion.  At peak congestions, the toll will reach its highest, let’s say $3.00.  So the choice the user has now is whether their time is worth the value that is displayed.  Is getting to work faster worth $3.00 or not?  This again, is a choice left up to the user.  In both cases, the toll is not forced upon all drivers.

As drivers leave mixed flow lanes into HOV or HOT lanes, they experience the benefits (time savings) of the lanes.   This is the goal and means of HOV and HOT lanes.  So do they work?  Keep reading….

Los Angeles County

Let’s look at the recent example of Los Angeles.  Los Angeles County broke ground on July 7th on it’s first HOT lanes on Interstate 10 and 110 (Orange County has had HOT lanes on Route 91 since 1995).  The project is not constructing “new” lanes – that is, adding road capacity – but is “converting” existing HOV lanes into toll lanes.  Many urban planners and traffic engineers are excited about the news.  Drivers and some politicians on the other hand are not as excited.

I’m always entertained when people say HOV lanes don’t work because they get almost just as full as the regular lanes.  They are essentially saying that because so many people chose the carpool lane, that it must not be working.  Carpool lanes are so effective at moving drivers at faster speeds than regular lanes that demand on those lanes begins to exceed their supply (capacity) resulting in congested lanes.  Essentially, the same principles that cause congestion on freeways are what cause congestion on carpool lanes – more people driving than the road can hold.  The problem isn’t that carpool lanes don’t work; it’s that they are too crowded by carpoolers (frankly, a nice thought).  So how do we solve this?  Well, we can solve this in the same two options that are for freeways in general: We can either expand capacity (build or convert more carpool lanes) or change the requirements for entering the carpool lane.

In cities like Los Angeles, expanding capacity is incredibly difficult and extremely expensive, whether carpool lanes or not.  Expanding capacity is also not a great strategy for solving congestion due to a phenomenon known as induced demand.  So the better solution is to change the requirements for entering.  Right now, the I-10 freeway has a 2-person requirement to enter the lane.  The options to fix this are either to increase the passenger requirement or add tolls.  LA has chosen to convert these overcrowded lanes to toll lanes.  This creates an entirely new form of screening lane users.  Drivers will need to make the choice of either paying a toll to travel faster or make the choice not to.

Check out this audio from KQED’s The California Report:

Are HOT Lanes Double Taxation?

A common thought among drivers when they hear of an impending toll on their favorite freeway is that they are being taxed again.  First, they are taxed at the gas pump and now they are taxed for driving on a road, a road they used to drive on for free… or so they thought.  Freeways cost money and we pay for them through user fees. Drivers know these fees as the gas tax. But in today’s world, you no longer really pay for the highway you are driving on like you did when the tax was first implemented.  To understand why, you need a brief history lesson.

California, for example, funds highway construction and maintenance through user fees.  These are the taxes you know and love to hate and the source of the double taxation argument.  The gas tax was once an excellent source of funding for the highway system but has since lost the majority of its purchasing power.  When the gas tax was first implemented, cars were clunky and inefficient.  How much gas you purchased was a good indication of how many miles you were driving.  So the tax was viewed as very fair.  Those who drove more should pay more to keep the roads in top condition.  But over the years as cars have become more fuel efficient, the gas you purchase is no longer an adequate measure of how much you drive.  Consider the following example:

I drive a 2000 Ford Mustang that gets about 18 MPG.  A Prius, on the other hand, gets about 50 MPG.  If we both started from Los Angeles and drove the 350+ miles to San Francisco, I would stop to put gas in my car 2-3 times for a round trip.  The Prius, on the other hand, may only stop once.  We each traveled the same distance and put the same amount of ware on the highways.  The Prius driver, however, is paying less in taxes than I am because he did not stop to put gas (hence pay into the gas tax).  Remember, gas tax revenue is what pays for freeway construction and maintenance.  So what is happening is that as cars become more fuel efficient, they no longer pay as much into the fund that keeps our roads in good condition.  And those of us who drive less fuel efficient cars end up subsidizing those who do.  So how do we fix this?  Well, you’re not going to like either one of them.  We either need to raise the gas tax or start charging tolls. (There are other means that go beyond the scope of this post).

So when people come and say that a toll on a road is a double taxation, that’s actually incorrect.  The fact is that the existing tax is no longer sufficient to cover the cost of building and maintaining the roads that they are being subsidized to drive on.  The tolls are meant to bridge this gap.

Rich vs. Poor?

The rich vs. poor argument around tolling lanes has been around since tolling.  The argument that tolls create “lexus lanes” is that by requiring people to pay money for lanes that travel at faster speeds, these lanes will only be open to those who can afford to pay for them, i.e., the wealthy.  Low-income commuters would be stuck in the slower moving lanes.  This of course, is not entirely correct.

Let’s establish certain things that the argument does make a true point about.  Traveling in a toll lane, by definition, requires money. The I-10 freeway, for example, will have a toll that reaches up to $1.40, depending on traffic conditions.  If you chose not to pay the toll, for whatever reason, then you obviously won’t benefit.  But this is a cold look at the simple facts.

It’s also important to recognize that while there are people like Congresswoman Maxine Waters who continue to argue that toll lanes are unfair, you should understand that low-income drivers are actually in favor of tolls over other forms of taxation.  Professor Brian Taylor at UCLA also shows that the poor are correct in chosing tolls because other forms of road finance, those even favored by the officials, are actually more unfair to the poor.  Read: Just Road Pricing  (For the nerds with more detail).

The purpose of toll roads is to help alleviate traffic congestion – a negative externality the market fails to address.  By charging drivers to use toll lanes, you are able to free up normal lanes by removing those who chose to pay the toll out of the regular lanes.  Those who pay the toll receive the benefit of traveling at a faster speed than those in the other lanes.  Those in the other lanes also benefit because as some drivers leave for toll lanes, it frees up the normal lanes, though they will still be slower than the toll lanes.  Nevertheless, by reallocating where people drive on the roads you essentially make the roads more efficient and speeds up traffic.  This benefits everyone, rich and poor.

It’s Your Choice

In closing, carpool lanes and their toll lane cousins work.  And to a greater extent, they provide choice in your traveling options.  Make no mistake, if you drive solo on Los Angeles’ freeways, famous for their traffic congestion, it is your choice.  If you are driving solo in the far left regular lane at 35 mph while the toll lane is whizzing at 65mph, that is not because government forced you travel at that speed.  You, as the driver, chose to drive solo and chose not to pay the toll.  You made the conscious decision that the time you would have saved was not worth the price of the toll.  Remember, if the toll and carpool lanes were removed, then you would not be traveling very fast anyway.  So drivers need to ask themselves a very important question.  Would you rather be forced to drive at slow, congestion speeds because everyone is on the road or would you rather have the option of choosing lanes that can get you there faster, even if you had to pay a small fee for them.  Most people, given the option, prefer to have the freedom of choice.  And that is what HOV and HOT lanes provide.

Roobs is a masters student at UCLA in the Department of Urban & Regional Planning with concentrations in Transportation Planning & Policy and Urban Design & Development. He has a BA in Legal Studies and Sociology from UC Berkeley. Roobs is a former Waterfront Commissioner for the City of Berkeley and former paralegal for a law firm specializing in real estate development.


2 Responses to “Some Like it HOT! Explaining Carpool & Toll Lanes”

  1. Jim Horn said

    Roobs totally misses the point in his discussion of HOT lanes. He forgets to discuss the unintended consequences on the GP lanes where most of the people travel. The economy is in the HOT lanes. People will only choose a HOT lane when there is misery in the GP lanes. How much do we have to increase the misery in the GP lanes at the expense of the economy in order to get people to take the HOT lane so Roobs can say the HOT lane is working? We are generally not talking about converting a single HOV lane into a HOT lane, but rather converting a HOV lane and a GP lane into HOT lanes. e.g. that is two lanes of traffic.

    Actual data on SR 167 in the State of Washington showed that the HOT lanes carried less vehicles after it was converted to a HOT lane than it did operating as an HOV 2+ even though the HOV 2+ could still travel in the HOT lane for free. The inconvenience of entry and exit points discouraged HOV 2+ use and there were less SOV’s willing to pay the tolls than those discouraged. Projections by WSDOT on proposed I-405 HOT lanes show that proposed HOT lanes were projected to carry less vehicles than operating the added lane as a GP lane (1100 VPH vs 1650 VPH)

    If you want to know whether HOT lanes work, ask the people in the GP lanes whether they would rather have the added capacity of an additional lane or have the additional lane operated as a HOT lane. HOT lanes don’t generate enough revenue to pay for both their capital and collection costs, thus the HOT lanes have to be built using gas tax revenues. The real question is: “Do we want to use our gas tax dollars (the taxes paid by those people in the GP lanes) to build toll ways or free ways?” If you interested in jobs and the economy, build the additional lane and operate it as a freeway, not a HOT lane.

    It is time we look at real data rather than hypothetical discussions.


  2. […] I cannot post it here.  However, here is my brief explanation on the same point from a previous post of mine: The gas tax was once an excellent source of funding for the highway system but has since […]

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