Wednesday, February 27, 2013

PRESS ENTERPRISE EDITORIAL: During nonpeak hours, open car pool lanes to all

The Legislature should support efforts to open car pool lanes to all vehicles at off-peak
travel times to improve traffic flow. - See more HERE

THE PRESS-ENTERPRISE - Car-clogged California needs every bit of efficiency the state can squeeze from freeways. So legislators should back a push to open car pool lanes to general traffic during non-rush hours. The state does not have so much freeway capacity that it can afford to leave lanes mostly empty for long stretches each day.

Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Los Angeles, last week introduced AB 405. The bill would open a five-mile stretch of car pool lanes on Highway 134 to regular traffic during off-peak travel hours. Currently, only vehicles with two or more occupants can use the lanes, regardless of the time of day. The assemblyman notes that the goal of car pool lanes is to ease traffic congestion and improve air quality. But letting lanes sit empty while bumper-to-bumper traffic jams the rest of the freeway just irritates motorists, without serving any policy purpose.

Gatto crafted the proposal as a pilot program, but clearly envisions extending the same approach to freeways across Southern California. He has the right idea: Letting solo drivers use car pool lanes during off-peak hours is a cost-effective way to increase freeway capacity — cheaper certainly than spending billions of dollars to add additional lanes. The state now has more than 1,400 miles of car pool lanes, out of about 12,000 miles of freeway in the state.

The evidence supports the assemblyman’s proposal. A 2012 Caltrans report about such “high-occupancy vehicle” lanes in the Los Angeles area suggests the lanes underperform. An average of 1,300 vehicles per hour used the lanes during rush hour times in 2011. Caltrans puts a limit of 1,650 vehicles per hour as the maximum traffic level for such lanes, so the car pool lanes are hardly filled to capacity. Some of the car pool lanes barely met Caltrans’ minimum standard of 800 vehicles per hour. And those numbers were for peak times. Traffic in those lanes would be even less during off hours — hardly an efficient use of existing freeway space.

That result is not an anomaly. A 2007 report by the Institute for Transportation Studies at UC Berkeley found similar underuse of California’s car pool lanes — and suggested that opening the lanes to all traffic at some times of the day would improve freeway operations.

California already has a precedent for doing so. In Northern California, the car pool restrictions only apply during morning and evening rush hour periods Monday through Friday. The rest of the time, anyone can use the lanes.

Caltrans says that following a similar approach in Southern California would be impractical, because the daily freeway congestion lasts longer. But that contention merely means less time might be available for all-purpose use of the lanes, and is not a persuasive reason for keeping restrictions in place 24 hours a day. And nothing undercuts public support for car pool lanes like being stuck in traffic while a restricted lane sits empty.

Expanding freeways is costly, time-consuming and disruptive, so California needs promote the most efficient use of existing lanes. And barring most traffic from lanes that are nearly empty for part of the day is not a sensible approach to meeting that goal.

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