The businessman at the front of the early boarding line for your last cross-country flight may have gotten there without enduring 100,000 miles sardined into Row 34. Quite possibly, his privileged frequent-flier status was a credit card perk — or even bought outright.
Lately, that concept of putting a price on convenience has been adapted as a way to manage traffic congestion. Going beyond the existing model of rewarding commuters who fill the empty seats in their cars, these programs offer access to lanes once reserved for high-occupancy vehicles.
In short, the HOV lane is making way for the High Occupancy Toll lane.
Since October, a program created to improve traffic flow in restricted-use lanes around Atlanta has made it possible for solitary motorists to buy their way into the express lane; car pools of three or more, eligible alternative-fuel vehicles, motorcycles and an expanded fleet of buses can still scoot in free. Payment is made using an electronic transponder, and under what the Georgia Transportation Department calls value pricing, tolls increase as traffic in the restricted lane builds. The rate can vary from 1 cent to 90 cents a mile.
The goal of the program, logically, is to keep traffic in the restricted lane moving at a reliable pace. Still, it did not have the intended effect of improving commutes along the 15.5-mile stretch of Interstate 85 in Gwinnett and DeKalb Counties — at least, not at first.
"Before this was put in, we didn't have daily gridlock," said Howard Rodgers, who commutes from his Lawrenceville home, in Gwinnett County.
He has found plenty of support for his view. Within a month of the HOT lane's opening, Rodgers and a coalition of local groups had gathered thousands of signatures on a petition calling on state and county authorities to stop or suspend the program immediately.
The source of his displeasure: "The time it takes me to get home, and the time away from my family," Rodgers said in a telephone interview. Driving in the free lanes, he said, the 45-mile trip home from work during rush hour had doubled to a 90-minute or even two-hour grind since the conversion. He credits the petition drive for the state's decision to delay a second lane-access project.
The shake-up of who gets to use express lanes, and at what price, extends beyond Atlanta. California air-quality regulators ended single-occupant HOV privileges for many types of hybrids last summer, revising the list of eligible vehicles to exclude older, conventional hybrids like the Toyota Prius in favor of plug-in hybrids and battery-electric cars. Likewise, the rules controlling lane access for hybrids in Virginia will change in July.
Like Atlanta, which secured a $110 million Transportation Department grant in 2008 for congestion reduction projects, cities including Dallas, Denver, Houston and Los Angeles have completed or are now converting car pool lanes to high-occupancy toll lanes with federal support. In December, Virginia secured a $20 million federal grant for a HOT lane project in the works for Interstate 95. The project, with a projected cost of more than $940 million, will connect with HOT lanes already under construction on the Capital Beltway.
Nicknamed Lexus lanes in the 1990s by critics who pointed out that many drivers would not be able to afford the privilege, HOT lanes are rarely introduced without some opposition. The debate over how to unclog American highways pits free-market fixes - pricing schemes based on travel demands at specific times of day — against government incentives that restrict roadways as a carrot for desirable behaviors like car-pooling or driving a less polluting car.
On Interstate 85 in Atlanta, motorists left the new toll lane virtually vacant for the first few days. Governer Nathan Deal soon stepped in, slashing the maximum charge for traveling the full length of the corridor at peak travel times to $3.05, from $5.50, after less than a week of operation. And he asked federal authorities to allow two-person car pools to drive free in the toll lane. The Federal Highway Administration decided to maintain the three-person car pool requirement for HOT lane funds, however, writing in November that it was still too early to evaluate the program's effectiveness.
The old system was far from ideal. According to the Georgia Department of Transportation, morning travel speeds in the two-person car pool lane peaked at 36 miles an hour in 2005-6. In 2009, the lane picked up to 45 mph at the height of the morning commute. But the state attributed the increase to short-term gas shortages, gas price spikes, a slowing economy and road improvements, and worried that by 2015 the HOV lane travel speeds would average only 26 mph.
Indeed, cities including Seattle and Minneapolis have used HOT lanes to maintain average speeds upward of 50 mph in the toll lane more than 95 per cent of the time. Even in Atlanta, where the program has met vocal opposition, the lane was used for about 7,300 trips each weekday in its first month, officials reported. By January that had grown to more than 11,600 trips per weekday.
In the first full work week of December, average speeds during the morning peak ranged from 39 to 63 mph, compared with 30 to 57 mph in the general lanes. Toll rates reached no more than $3.75, and the daily trip averages for the month were $1.16.
Of course, commuters could have all of those benefits - driving in the express lane without paying tolls — if they traveled in car pools.
Eliminating the prized privilege for hybrids may have had some unintended consequence in the transition period while plug-in models remain relatively scarce. Researchers with the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Berkeley found that banning solo hybrid drivers from the car pool lane appeared to slow traffic across all lanes. Possibly because drivers feel uncomfortable blazing past stopped traffic at 70 mph, and probably because cars switching out of the car pool lane must decelerate more, the researchers suggest, greater congestion in adjacent lanes slows travel speeds in the car pool lane.
According to Ellen Hanak, a senior policy fellow with the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California, paid express lanes can do a lot more for changing behaviour and reducing congestion than free car pool lanes.
"The nature of how land use and residential development and job development has occurred, we have more and more situations where car pools are just not convenient for people," she said in an interview at the organisation's San Francisco headquarters.
Federal census data released last fall showed that in 2009 just 10 per cent of United States workers took car pools to work; 76 per cent of American workers drive to work alone. For suburban residents commuting to jobs in a city, solo driving is even more common, at 82 per cent.
Despite thriving grass-roots ride-sharing plans like the "casual car pool" across the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, a lot of HOV lanes have been underused, Hanak said. "The idea with HOT lanes was 'OK, let's use the capacity better and put a price on the availability of a faster lane.' "
Although the old perception of HOT lanes as a privilege for the rich persists, Hanak said, "Anybody who's a driver can at certain times find it really valuable to get somewhere faster. Time can be money for everybody."
Not surprisingly, many businesses and researchers see technology as part of the solution. For example, IBM, the California Transportation Department and the Center for Innovative Transportation at the University of California, Berkeley have joined in a research initiative intended to bring more real-time data into traffic management.
Hanak said she believed technology could play an even larger role in smoothing the flow of highway traffic.
"Technology has evolved to the point where it's possible to move toward a system where we're charged in general for road use the way people are charged on these express lanes," she said.
For any solution, the ultimate test may be surviving some level of irrationality on the road.
"You've got to deal with this organic thing, which is the driving public," Hanak said.
©2012 The New York Times News Service