The Truth about HOT Lanes

HotLanesHigh Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes are for buses and carpools. When operated  effectively and with proper enforcement, they work well.   HOT lanes are something else again. HOT lanes allow freeway users of means to pay substantial fees to speed past the rest of us inching along in the adjacent “mixed flow” lanes. While some might regard this as acceptable, here’s the problem.  MTC’s billion dollar ongoing HOT lane program is doing far more than just converting HOV lanes to HOT  lanes.  It is also closing the gaps between HOV sections by adding 300 lane miles of new asphalt so as to create a continuous system of HOT lanes throughout the nine MTC Bay Area Counties. 

Some might regard this as progress?  It isn’t.  Here’s the problem. It’s now well established that additional highway capacity inevitably leads to more highway use.  For this reason MTC’s HOT lane program, by increasing freeway capacity, generates more freeway traffic, therefore sending more cars and trucks into already congested towns and cities that need less congestion, not more congestion.

In 1970 the average 24-hour speed of a Muni bus was 9.2 miles per hour. Today, thanks in large part to increased traffic, the 24-hour average bus speed now sits at just 8.1 mph and is destined to go even lower in the years ahead. To maintain the same level of service this slowdown requires both a larger bus fleet and more bus operating hours

Others seek to justify the program by saying that HOT lane revenue “surpluses” (after paying for HOT lane operation, enforcement and maintenance) will go to needy transit properties. Maybe…but there’s a flaw in that reasoning as well.  How would all that induced new freeway traffic affect local bus service?  The answer to that question is obvious.  As indicated above more traffic congestion in cities and other built-up areas means slower bus speeds and slower bus travel both causes would-be paying customers to turn away and increases transit operating costs.  It would take a whole lot of HOT lane surpluses to counteract the damage done to towns and cities by flooding their streets with additional freeway traffic.

Twenty years ago MTC rushed the Region into building a half-baked HOT lane system without bothering to gauge its full effect.  Another Bay Area example of stumbling ahead with a costly, politically-popular “fix-it” with nary a glance at the pros and cons.

This article was featured in Newsletter Issue 10. Click here to go back to the newsletter.