Why HOV Lanes Suck

Last modified on March 11th, 2009

Having driven over the Port Mann bridge probably close to a thousand times in my life, I’m pretty much an expert on how traffic works in that area. Years ago, in an effort to relieve some congestion for westbound traffic heading into Vancouver, the city created a dedicate HOV (high occupancy vehicle) lane that goes pretty much from the Port Mann bridge all the way to the Hastings exit downtown.


Unfortunately though, one of the characteristics of that lane is that it’s rarely used to capacity. There’s nothing more frustrating than sitting in grid-locked traffic and seeing a completely empty lane to your far left. I can’t even imagine how much it cost to construct that lane, and to have it sitting idle sure isn’t helping relieve congestion, or the frustration of daily drivers.

If we go back to first principles and employ Occam’s Razor, we have to ask the question, “which is more likely, that people are simply too lazy to organize carpools into the city each day and that they’re content dealing with grid lock, or that carpooling simply isn’t an option for the majority of people.”

I obviously believe it’s the latter, as there are very few jobs I’ve had in my lifetime where carpooling would have been a realistic option. The reality is that peoples’ schedules simply don’t align very often. Given how little free time I had in the city, the last thing I’d want to do would be to sit around work for an extra hour while waiting for my friend to finish up work so that we could head home together.

So I’d like to propose an alternative option. Leave the HOV lanes intact, and allow all carpools to use that lane for that purpose. In addition, charge a monthly free for an HOV pass that allows you to use that lane even if you’re a single driver. Use 100% of that money to fund public transit for future projects, and help improve transit in the region. With that model, you can have that lane used to a higher capacity, and also help fund future projects that may relieve congestion. You could even use some of the money to purchase carbon credits to offset the fact that a single occupancy driver is in that lane.

Given that so many of the options for relieving traffic in Vancouver involved expanding roadways or twinning bridges, I think a plan that better utilizes existing transportation infrastructure is a pretty good option.

29 responses to “Why HOV Lanes Suck”

  1. Lisa says:

    Ooh!! Good strategy. ‘They’ need to know about this.

  2. John says:

    I don’t think you’ve driven on the number 1 during rush hour…I can attest that the HOV lanes are quite well utilized…at least during those key hours.

    The last thing I want is an solo asshat with money in my ‘faster’ lane home.

    There are already enough HOV cheats using the lanes…I’m sure the lack of enforcement and low fine keeps them coming back.

  3. Duane Storey says:

    I actually have, quite a few times, and maybe a car whizzes past every 5 – 10 seconds, but it’s definitely not as busy as it could be.

  4. John says:

    Every 5 – 10 seconds? That’s not rush hour. There are certainly spots along the route that are more open than others but last night for example, at 5pm, it was bumper to bumper (albeit moving) in the HOV lane from Hastings to the Port Mann.

  5. Duane Storey says:

    Well, I came into Vancouver from Chilliwack last Friday at around 8am and it was backed up starting at around Langley.. It crawled into Vancouver past the Port Mann and the HOV was basically empty.

  6. Tyler says:

    I hate when I’m sitting on the #1 heading into Vancouver and see drivers on the HOV lane who only have themselves and no one else in the vehicle with them. I tend to see more cars with just 1 person in them then 2 or more as the HOV requires.

    An accident either direction will bring traffic to its knees in both directions. Too bad humans are naturally curious so they stop and gock at what’s happening. Even if its just someone who got pulled over! lol

  7. Davin says:

    Driving a 4 passenger vehicle by yourself is pretty selfish. Making a pass for people who can afford to pay to drive in the HOV lane regardless of occupancy is classist (not a word, I know) and short sighted because the lanes would be jammed by rich people. The lane should incentivize those who drive by themselves to spend 10 extra minutes to pick up their friends, carpool, and save 20 minutes on the drive in. Faster, better for the environment. If you say its not possible to carpool, maybe it’s time for you to make some more friends!

  8. John says:

    What I’d like to see is similar to what’s in place on the Barnett Hwy…a timed HOV lane during the peak hours (obviously longer timed blocks on the #1 than the Barnett) but before/after those hours, let anyone use it.

  9. Duane Storey says:

    @John that’s not a bad idea.

    And Davin, not everyone has the ability to car pool. Some people have kids to get at weird hours, others simply can’t find people that work in the same area with similar hours. Other cities in the world have more public transportation and better highways to accommodate the traffic. Also, some families need 4 person vehicles because they have kids. Are you suggesting their kids walk instead, or that they splurge and get two vehicles?

    I don’t think it’s short sighted at all. I think spending billions of dollars on a highway system when our current one is idle a portion of the time is a waste of money.

  10. Davin says:

    Sure, walk. Or take the bus.

    What on earth would your rich-person HOV fee go to if people aren’t going to use public transit? What use would it be? People have to own this problem (and many others) rather than push for “more, more, more.”

  11. Duane Storey says:

    Davin, the problem is that there isn’t enough public transit. The skytrain doesn’t go enough places, and I actually don’t think there are *ANY* public busses over the Port Mann bridge. The money would go to improving that. In Ottawa everyone takes public transit because they have a great system that can get you there quickly. Toronto has a subway system, as do Boston and New York. Vancouver is archaic by comparison, and resting your entire transit strategy on adding more HOV lanes just seems like an effort doomed to fail.

  12. Davin says:

    Duane, that is a big problem.

  13. David Smith says:

    The State of Utah a system like this where they’ve migrated their HOV lanes to express lanes for pass holders, clean fuel cars, motorcyles or cars with two or more passengers.


    Not sure what the public thinks though.

  14. I’m afraid I would have to agree with Davin… much as I understand your frustration waiting in a queue beside an empty lane, the paying approach is classist and would create a two-speed system where rich people are able to get everywhere quickly and do the things they want to do – whilst the poor sit there in a massive traffic queue watching all the rich drivers cruise by in the very same lane you once watched with such envy. I’m sure you can imagine that they would be feeling much worse about this disparity than you do about the current situation.

    In the UK we have free medical care (the NHS) but already that is being sacrificed to a certain extent for private hospitals where if you have the money up front you can be treated weeks or even months before your non-paying compatriotes. Whatever happened to providing a good public service to everyone? I really hope society doesn’t keep on going this way…

  15. Duane Storey says:

    I actually don’t really understand that argument. I’m not saying only rich people can use that lane. If you are a legit carpool or HOV user, you can still use that lane. If you want to give a certain amount of money to public transit in exchange for using that lane, you can do that too.

    Obviously the crux of my argument lies in the fact that those lanes are underutilized. If you don’t believe they are, then it doesn’t make sense. But if they are underutilized then moving people out of the other lanes (i.e., even by paying), actually helps everyone (including your poor people) since traffic in general would move faster.

  16. Duane Storey says:

    Also, this type of system exists in many parts of the world. In Ontario for example, they have many toll highways that cost money to use. The benefit is that they are well maintained and they save you time. There is still a non-fee road that people can use, but if you want to shell out $10 you can get there faster. If that money is going back into the public pool and helping build additional infrastructure I don’t really see it as a bad thing. The only problem would be if too many people started paying to use that lane, although I think that problem would be self regulating since you wouldn’t continue to pay if it wasn’t a faster route.

    I think John’s idea is a pretty good one, but compared to what we have today (in my opinion), charging a fee such that the HOV lane could be better utilized is still a good option in my mind.

  17. Duane Storey says:

    And Johnaton, with regards to the health care, that may not be a bad thing. We have a pseudo two-tiered system here in Canada where there are private clinics you can go to. Technically we shouldn’t have those because our system should be entirely funded by the government. However, many have started cropping up and you can actually pay to get faster service.

    And while you can argue that it’s a terrible thing, here in Canada at least it has saved lives. The province of Quebec took a pile of these clinics to the Supreme Court to be shut down, but the court ruled that given the shoddy state of the Canadian medical system (and the lack of funding), that shutting the clinics down would ultimately result in even greater wait times in the public system, and ultimately more fatalities. I agree that this system ultimately shouldn’t exist, but point is that the root cause is underfunding due to government cutbacks, and not the greedy desire to have an elitist system.

  18. I think that you need to be or have been poor to understand the argument. I have lived in China for almost two years now and EVERYTHING here runs on a system of privileges – if you have money you can do pretty much everything you want to do, if you don’t have money then you feel incredibly frustrated and angry with the inequalities of society.

    I don’t deny that the money you would pay to have access to the HOV lane would be put towards a good cause, however this alone does not justify this elitist system where poor people either have to inconvenience themselves to the extent you mentioned in your post (waiting around for colleagues to finish work so everyone can head home together in one vehicle) or put up with the rich guys cruising past in big jeeps and sports cars. I think you should put yourself in that poor persons position (which may be hard if you haven’t been poor before) and think how you might feel about this situation. The fact that the system exists elsewhere does not justify the creation of this one.

    I do however agree that if there is an empty lane on the highway, it’s a waste of resources and something needs to be done. Instead of creating a two-speed elitist system where people can pay, access to this lane could be granted to people who carpool but also to those who have bought environmentally cars – which rich people could afford to buy if they wanted access to the lane. You can kill two birds with one stone here – make sure the lane is used to its full extent whilst also trying to help the environment at the same time.

    Regarding pay-for health systems, I think that they are an excuse for public hospitals to not provide a good service. People who can afford to pay for private clinics will do so and therefore not complain about the public system. Meanwhile, poorer people who use the public system suffer in silence as they are less influential in society and hence unable to make their voice heard. The government however is laughing all the way to the bank as it no longer has to commit such a large proportion of its budget towards public health care. Disgraceful.

  19. Duane Storey says:

    I have been poor Jonathan, so I do understand. I also still don’t understand your argument. You’re ok with having rich people buy environmentally friendly cars so they can use the lane, but not ok with charging them a fee? What’s the difference? Also, a portion of the fee can go towards carbon credits, which is another environmental benefit. You’re also ignoring one of my arguments which is that moving people from those lanes into the HOV lane will help everyone, not just rich people or people who can carpool.

    I agree about health care. But it’s ultimately the government’s fault that it continues to happen (and to a large degree the people who put up with it).

  20. hmm… I guess to be honest I’m not really happy with rich people buying environmentally cars to get in the fast lane – its just that it seems a lesser evil compared with just paying outright for the privilege. I agree that moving people into the fast lane will help everyone, it’s just a matter of deciding who should be moved into it whilst trying to be as fair as possible to all levels of society.

    Regarding health care – you are right. The government and middle classes are all complicit in this – and that includes myself I suppose.

  21. RJP says:

    You know, with enough money you can just pay a monthly fee to move into the city and thereby give up your frustration and the commute. Everything is a choice. By living in Chiliwack you are trading frustration for COL and cheaper housing. It may not be elegant but it would solve the problem by lowering demand for all of the lanes.

  22. Duane Storey says:

    Hey RJP – Congrats, you’ve taken a problem that affects a lot of Vancouverites and somehow translated it into only my problem. Hopefully that makes it go away.

    Just so you know, while I live in Chilliwack, I actually work from home and don’t commute. Perhaps you should come up with another argument that doesn’t involve me commuting.

  23. Duane, when I first read this post I disagreed… now I’ve changed my mind.

    For the people saying that the rich shouldn’t be able to buy their way out of being environmentally friendly, or that being able to pay for it is “classist”… driving already /is/ classist. Driving is considered a “right”, but it shouldn’t be. It’s a privilege and convenience.

    If the rules were to change so that Smart Cars or an insert-other-fuel-efficient-car-here can drive in the HOV lane then only those who can afford a second smaller car will be able to use the lane. Most people need to keep their 4/5 seat cars to drive their family around on non-rush hours.

    The environment simply doesn’t come into the equation for 95% of people yet… they use transit because that’s all that’s affordable for them, they carpool only if it’s convenient. Environment is still an after thought for most. The HOV lane doesn’t change that.

    p.s. buying a /new/ car that’s more fuel efficient just to use the HOV lane is probably way way worse for the environment than just paying extra fees with your existing car.

  24. Davin says:

    People still make a choice to live in Chilliwack or to have a family, or both. You aren’t in Vancouver when you’re in Chilliwack the same way you’re not in Vancouver when you’re in Victoria. At least *you* have a bridge. 😉

  25. Stephen Rees says:

    Yes, this idea is being tried elsewhere – try a Google search on “HOT lanes” HOT = High occupancy or toll

    The highway by the way is not a “city” responsibility but provincial. So the person you need to deal with is Kevin Falcon (good luck with that!)

  26. Jenny says:

    Whether Duane lives in Chilliwack or not is not the issue. The issue is that our transportation system sucks. People need to get around. Compared to so many cities (particularily in places like Germany) our options are really limited and are often froced to use our cars.
    I do have to disagree with you on the HOV issue a bit though Duane. I wait an extra 30 minutes after work so that my husband can pick me up and we can drive home together. I would rather enjoy a ride with him in the HOV lane than stuck in the slower, more gridlocked lanes. The HOV lanes are never empty during rush hour though. We don’t cruise along at 100km/h but it is still faster and we save on gas.

  27. Davin says:

    Go Jenny! That’s ideal.

  28. I recall from my days playing SimCity that, as in real cities, adding more lanes to highways and roads generally only speeds things up for a very short time, because as soon as commutes become quick, more people move into the commuting areas and the gridlock sets in again.

    So whatever solution arises, it needs to try to avoid that problem. I’ve been lucky enough (and made choices enough) never to live anywhere that has required me to cross a bridge to go to work. Okay, that’s not quite true: in 2001 and 2002 I had a contract job in Richmond, but I rode my bike the hour or so each way, so traffic didn’t affect me except for all the nasty spray in the rain.

    But anyway, whether it’s a HOT lane, HOV/enviro lane, pure HOV lane, or whatever, any policy changes should try to make the lane as well used as possible while still keeping it faster than the regular lanes. Maybe that might require trying a few things and then making changes based on resulting traffic patterns: try the one category that will make the smallest incremental difference in traffic first (like green vehicles in addition to HOV), and keep adding additional categories until the right balance occurs.

    And yes, there should certainly be buses on the Port Mann.

  29. Alan H says:

    Around here the HOV lanes are open for motorcycles (yeah!), vehicles with 2 (or 3) or more folks (depends on signage) and hybrid / alternative fuel vehicles with a permit sticker. Zero emission vehicles and CNG vehicles have no quota on permits, the hybrids compete for a limited number of permits. This seems to work well. Most mornings my HOV lane is busy, but flowing slightly faster (and sometimes much faster) that the other lanes. It never sits empty.

    The HOV lanes are only ‘restricted’ certain hours, commonly 0400-0900 and 1500-1900 daily, again, as posted.

    NPR recently had a story about a state (do not remember) that is now charging a toll to use the HOV lanes (HOT lanes) with ‘standard vehicles’. The difference is that the pricing is a function of traffic density. The idea is that you set a pricing model that helps regulate the volume in the HOT lane. Makes sense to me.

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