Adding HOV lanes the wrong solution for Calgary

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Appeared in the Calgary Herald

According to recent news reports, the City of Calgary is considering more High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes to ease traffic congestion on the city’s crowded streets. This would be a mistake and the city would be well advised to drop the HOV idea and start considering adding additional toll lanes to Calgary’s road network instead.

The rationale behind the use of HOV lanes, which are designated highway and street lanes reserved for buses and vehicles with two or more passengers, is that they reduce congestion by reducing the number of vehicles on the road. Unfortunately for commuters and taxpayers in general, HOV lanes fail to reduce congestion and instead reduce the efficiency of transportation networks.

Among many problems with HOV lanes is that they are often seriously underutilized and often are not used by the sorts of commuters that people might hope.

According to transportation analyst Alan Pisarski of the Eno Transportation Foundation, HOV lane activity consists primarily of family members with similar destinations and time schedules. The incremental reduction in congestion and pollutants is near zero since there is a high probability these family members would have carpooled in the absence of HOV lanes.

Joy Dahlgren of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Berkeley has concluded that there are very limited circumstances in which HOV lanes make sense over general-purpose lanes. Her conclusion is that HOV lanes are only effective when there is severe congestion and a high proportion of high occupancy vehicles in general-purpose lanes. The City of Calgary would be hard pressed to defend any of their HOV lanes based on these criteria.

Statistics Canada's data on how Calgarians commute provides some evidence of the likely failure of additional HOV lanes. In 2006, approximately 70 per cent of Calgarians drove to work. That compares to just 7.5 per cent who travelled to work as a passenger in a car and 15.6 per cent who rode the bus or C-Train. The bottom line is, many Calgarians chose to drive to work alone despite significant congestion on Calgary’s roadways.

The fact that a large majority of vehicles on Calgary’s roads today are single occupant vehicles is not entirely surprising. Like most Canadians, residents of Calgary work different schedules with different transportation needs during the week, and often go to and from different places compared to their coworkers, family, or neighbours.

Interestingly, lone drivers often find the consequences of using an HOV lane (potential fine) to be well worth the time they save by avoiding crowded non-HOV lanes. In Vancouver, for example, it is not at all uncommon to find single-occupant vehicles taking their chances and rushing off to work or home in the HOV lane illegally. Further several news stories have highlighted some of the laughable lengths that people will go to in order to access to HOV lanes to save time during commutes when it simply doesn’t make sense to find a passenger for the trip.

The use of HOV lanes is neither efficient nor sustainable as suburban populations continue to grow and citizens continue to commute in private vehicles despite the increased costs of doing so. Instead of focusing their energies on HOV lanes, the City should look into constructing new HOT (High Occupancy Toll) lanes. HOT lanes allow both high occupancy vehicles and others to use these restricted lanes. The difference is that single occupancy vehicles are charged a toll for using the HOT lane using modern technologies that avoid the need for tollbooths.

By increasing the amount of choice, congestion in existing lanes is eased as some drivers choose to purchase reduced commuting times by using the less congested HOT lanes. Such reforms have been successfully implemented throughout the United States with enormous success. Further, the HOT lane model could also be used to construct new lanes on a variety of Calgary roadways in partnership with private firms.

HOT lanes are a win for everyone. They allow travellers to purchase reduced commuting times if they so choose. At the same time, allowing single occupant vehicles to pay to use HOV lanes actually reduces congestion in the non-toll lanes, which benefits even those drivers who don’t choose to pay the tolls. HOT lanes also provide revenue that can be directed to road and highway maintenance, upgrades, and construction.

Abandoning the idea of more HOV lanes and using HOT lanes instead would be a move in the right direction for both commuters and taxpayers.

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