Interstate Economics

March 8, 2014

A couple of summers ago I spent a dismal afternoon on Interstates 405 and 5, traveling from Los Angeles to San Diego. For those who are math-challenged, the average speed for the four-hour, 125-mile trek was 31.25 miles per hour. (Rate equals distance divided by time, per my 4th grade teacher.)

My mind wandered often during the trip. I kept wondering when I’d see the accident, the one that never was! Increasingly, I thought about economics. Maybe it was the fear and angst associated with the financial struggles we all face, or maybe it was the fact that my dismal afternoon brought to mind, per Thomas Carlyle, “the dismal science.” I don’t know, but I saw at least a few economics lessons while I was p-p-put-putting along.

HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) lanes on highways represent markets. Whether you can, lawfully, place your vehicle in the HOV lane depends on the number of vehicle occupants. Pay the price—giving up your privacy, peace, and quiet—and you own the product, to wit:  the right to drive in the HOV lane.

And why do you want this product? Umm, you want to get there faster? Obviously! Unfortunately, Caltrans—the California Department of Transportation—says “[t]he central concept for HOV lanes is to move more people rather than more cars.” True that, I’m sure, but they’re not marketing the reason why I want to buy this product. Maybe I should keep my privacy, peace, and quiet.[1] On the other hand, if I’m getting what I want—getting there faster—I really don’t care one whit about what Caltrans says.

I wish! On the stretch of blacktop I occupied—parts of the second and third busiest Interstate highways in the country—I don’t think people move faster in the HOV lane. My conclusion is unscientific, but I had my eye on a black Mercedes SL500—a Southern California car if ever there was one—for a long while. While I tried to mostly stay in the HOV lane and it never entered the lane, I never got ahead of it.

Part of the slow-motion afternoon related to the fact that the HOV lane ended several times, for no apparent reason. I saw many signs that read “HOV Lane Ends 1/4 Mile” and lots of stalled traffic ahead. More often, I saw stalled traffic ahead and, soon after, the sign.

Caltrans also tells the public:

Regular “mixed-flow” lanes are never converted to HOV lanes. Rather, HOV lanes are always added to existing facilities.

If I’m reading these two sentences correctly, Caltrans wants to assure the public it is not taking regular lanes, the ones that give us all the right to drive as we please, all by ourselves, off line and “selling” them to Lefty, Prius driving people like me. Even in California.

People do need to enter and leave HOV lanes, and entering and exiting a highway slows everyone down. That said, if “we only add HOV lanes” policies account for the HOV lane coming and going, Caltrans may be interfering with its own product.

Note:  I got this far—plus or minus some editing—three years ago. Now, ready to post, I wondered how much thought has really gone into the merits of HOV lanes, and whether the issue has been revisited in the 40 years they’ve been in use in the United States.

Well, in modern times, when you wonder you Google! I found What We’ve Learned About Highway Congestion by Dr. Pravin Varaiya. (Dr. Varaiya is an expert in this field.) The article is comprehensible (mostly), and it’s short. The money quote? “And we’ve been surprised to discover that some HOV lanes may have the perverse effect of actually adding to congestion.” The problem? Slow drivers in single HOV lanes can hold everyone up. And, as drivers know, and sensors in the road that provide the data for Dr. Varaiya’s study may not know, moving in and out of the HOV lane also slows everyone down.

So my afternoon, coupled with Dr. Varaiya’s study, got me thinking. Are HOV lanes a 1970s product in 40 years older market? A product that has not kept up with the times?

There is amazing stuff going on with sensors in vehicles. (When you visit friends and relatives in the Midwest and East, you see these devices on the car visor, used for toll road payments.) Lots of applications exist—a friend has a company that measures and sells to fast food joints the order/delivery time differential for their drive-thru lanes are in place—and we can surely develop new apps that will allow road owners to incentivize desired behaviors. (Not my field, but I can imagine as system with fuel credits for multi-passenger vehicles. Sure, we may give up a bit of privacy, but if we’re on the wrong side of the fuel curve, and probably overheating our environment, so what!)

We need some knowledge, much of which I suspect is almost “off the shelf” stuff. We also need some will! Putting 20-25% of a freeway out there for use by drivers with passengers seems like a very expensive and inefficient means for moving more people than cars, especially when, per Dr. Varaiya, HOV lanes make the situation worse!


[1] Ms. J was my passenger, and that means I did not have the “privacy, peace, and quiet” options available to other drivers. Alas, we’re about as good in a car as most other married couples.


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