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Mounting evidence suggests High Occupancy Vehicle lanes are useless

  • November 4, 2013

By Lorne Gunter
Columnist, Edmonton Sun

Premier Alison Redford is in favour of HOV lanes on some Alberta highways. Why am I not surprised?

Sometimes also known as carpool lanes, High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes are typically set aside for cars and trucks (buses, too) with three or more occupants, including the driver.

Well, that's not entirely true. In most cities that have them, the dedicated lanes used to be set aside for vehicles containing three or more people. Now mostly there needs to be only two occupants because here's the honest truth about them: The lanes are failures.

At best HOV lanes don't add to congestion. Yet as often as not, they actually make traffic worse.

Environmentally conscious meddlers, like Premier Redford, still cling to the concept of HOV lanes even in the face of mounting evidence they are useless.

Social engineers, like Redford, are convinced they can craftily manipulate the population into carpooling more or getting out of their cars altogether and taking transit.

They permit their smug, moralistic objectives to cloud their thinking about transportation planning.

When you have that mentality, HOV lanes make sense to you: Inconvenience commuters who insist on driving alone, reward commuters who share a ride with others by setting up special lanes and -- presto! -- there will magically be less congestion on our roads and more "green" commuting.

And all these glorious benefits won't even cost that much because all they'll take is a little extra paint to set the HOV and bus lanes apart from the main lanes. Berkeley concluded "instead of improving mobility, HOV lanes ... increase congestion over-a ll; they do

Nice theory. Too bad it doesn't work that way in real life.

Two California academics recently completed a study of HOV lanes in and around San Francisco, which has one of the most extensive networks of carpool/bus lanes on the continent. Kwon Jaimyoung of California State University, East Bay and Pravin Varaiya of University of California, not significantly increase the throughput of people and they do not encourage carpooling."

How come? Because as Jaimyoung and Varaiya discovered, HOV lanes carry at least 400 fewer vehicles per hour than regular lanes. Where an HOV lane is created simply by designating an existing lane for carpools and buses (rather than paving an extra lane), the capacity of a road is decreased.

And, perhaps surprisingly, although the special lanes have fewer vehicles in them, they do not significantly shorten the commute times of drivers who get to use them. At least they don't shorten commutes enough to make it worth drivers' while to set up carpools.

In other words, while backers of HOV lanes will insist their goal is to reduce traffic jams, it never works that way because the lanes actually increase the volume of traffic in the regular lanes

Barry Wellar, a professor emeritus of planning at the University of Ottawa, says the reason HOV lanes remain popular with self-righteous planners and politicians is that few supporters have ever bothered to do any kind of research on their impact.

In a study of HOV lanes in Ontario, Wellar wrote "presentations by public agencies on behalf of HOV lanes are generally promotional, frequently disingenuous, and usually very short on evidence." He was surprised by how few in-depth studies had ever been conducted on their "efficiency, effectiveness, productivity, sustainability, value-for money [or] energy reduction."

Supporters of carpool and bus lanes are so convinced they are a great idea, they don't even bother to check out whether they actually achieve their goals.

Sounds like a policy tailor-made for our Premier Nanny.

Far better to add an extra lane for regular traffic where needed. But that's not politically correct enough for Redford.


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