Written by Kara Sjostrom, ESLLC 2015-2016
Since the 1970s, the United States has installed 350 high-occupancy lane facilities—carpool lanes—across the country. As part of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, HOV lanes were further encouraged as an environmental policy designed to promote carpooling and thereby reduce the number of cars on the road, and by extension, lower the proportion of pollution emitted from automobiles. It was assumed that the reduced commute time offered by HOV lanes would incentivize drivers to form carpools to bypass the congestion of the standard lanes. Yet, it’s rare for any standard commuter to attempt to seek a transport partner, much less find one departing from a nearby location, at the same time, going to the same or similar destination, and returning at the same time. Thus, it is unfortunate that the rate of commuters who carpool has fallen from 20% in the 1980s, to just 10% of Americans in 2012.
The carpool lanes we think of as a step towards environmental sustainability are detrimental as well for the environmental costs they entail, as they widen highways, thus using more land, and because of induced demand, actually increase carbon emissions. Yet, carpool lanes can also experience the opposite phenomenon; they often sit empty while the standard lanes are congested with single-occupancy cars—a condition called “empty lane syndrome.” As a result, cities have introduced special passes that permit single drivers to use the diamond lanes. This policy not only transforms what was initially an environmentally-framed issue into a revenue-based machine, but also does nothing to reduce the number of cars on the road. Through another common policy, single drivers can use HOV lanes under the condition they drive certified fuel-efficient cars. Yet, this brings up additional complications. Since fuel efficient and/or electric vehicles are typically more expensive than the average car, “offering a permit to people who can afford those cars essentially provides the wealthy with special access to roads paid for by all taxpayers.”
The failure of HOV lanes to make significant positive environmental impact is evident in the fact that more than 75% of American commuters drive alone to work, and pollution and carbon emissions from transportation sources have remained steadily at high levels. Without serious consideration for these issues and design plans that incorporate alternative forms of transport—like light rail, busses, and bikes—carpool lanes will surely be categorized as an ineffective environmental policy in a country that desperately needs to reduce its carbon emissions.
Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “Re-Thinking HOV – High Occupancy Vehicle Facilities and the Public Interest.” National Transportation Library. Bureau of Transportation Statistics, n.d. Web. 29 Oct. 2015. <http://ntl.bts.gov/DOCS/retk.html>.
“Do Car-Pool Lanes Work?” The New York Times. The New York Times, 06 Jan. 1996. Web. 01 Nov. 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/1996/01/07/nyregion/chatter-do-car-pool-lanes-work.html>.
Donovan, William. “Solo Carpoolers: Do HOV Lanes Discriminate?” Triple Pundit People Planet Profit. Triple Pundit, 09 Sept. 2010. Web. 01 Nov. 2015. <http://www.triplepundit.com/2010/09/solo-carpoolers-do-hov-lanes-discriminate/>.
“HOV Lane Compendium.” Tolling and Pricing Program. US Department of Transportation: Federal Highway Administration, n.d. Web. 01 Nov. 2015.
Shah, Neil. “More Commuters Go It Alone.” Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, Inc., 4 Nov. 2013. Web. 01 Nov. 2015. <http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702303661404579177860694973876>.