What Were They Thinking: Musings on Automobiles and Carpool Lanes

A few news articles related to cars have caught my eye, plus I’d like to share with you some additional musings on carpool lanes, and hear your opinion…

  • Lose That Spare. The LA Times had an interesting article a week or so ago about the increasing tendency of auto manufacturers to sell cars without spare tires. I’m not talking about a temp spare instead of a full-service tire; no, I’m talking about no spare tire at all and no place to put it. You either get a “run flat” tire (which is heavier and wears out sooner) or a can of patch fix. This is a bad idea—these new approaches can leave you stranded if a sidewall blows or a tire shreads.
  • Remote Access. An article in the NY Times over the weekend discussed the increasing use of smartphones and internet devices as door locks. Yes, you too can start your car and the A/C 20 minutes before you get in, or unlock your house from the safety of your office. To me, I think these are bad ideas, for the systems are far too easy to break. There’s nary a mention of security; there’s not even proof that you are you. This is an increasing tendency of society to go for the ease of use and not think about the security consequences. I’d rather have an entry system that really authenticated the individual against a strong access list and provided me an audit log.
  • Spend Like the Government. Saab has announced a number of new models, including new compact and luxury cars. You remember Saab, don’t you. Lost money for Sweden, sold to GM, who sold it (after months of trying to find a buyer) to the Chinese. The company hasn’t built a car since April 6, owes a bunch to suppliers and couldn’t pay its 3,700 workers a couple of weeks ago. So what do you do? As soon as the joint venture ink is dry, announce new models: small Saab called 9-1, and two big ones called 9-6 and 9-7. Somehow, I’m not sure they will be successful.

Lastly, a few thoughts on carpool lanes. These are based on a question I received from Mr. Roadshow, who is working on an article about the decrease in use of carpool lanes, at least in Northern California. He asked me what my thoughts were—did I think that carpool lanes work, and why or why not? He also asked my opinion on HOT (high-occupancy toll lanes, where you can buy your way in). Here’s some of what I wrote him. I’m curious your thoughts on the subject.

Well, perhaps I’m a little biased with my answer, and not because I’m the California Highway Guy. I’m also a vanpooler, and I’ve been commuting from the San Fernando Valley to El Segundo for over 20 years. That’s a distance of 35 miles straight. I’m also part of a company that has one of the oldest vanpooling programs in Southern
California (we’ve won numerous Diamond awards). Before the HOV lanes, I’d guess it took us perhaps 75 minutes in the morning, and the commute home, for those 35 miles, was about 110-120 minutes on average. My commute is directly along I-405 (if you have a map, from roughly Nordhoff to El Segundo S of LAX). We also have 15-20 minutes
of surface street driving on the northern end from the freeway to Northridge, and about 5 minutes on the southern end to my employer. We have an 8 passenger van, and we normally run between 5-8 passengers. Since I’ve been on the van, the HOV lane southbound on I-405 has been completed, it has shaved perhaps 10 minutes off the southbound commute. Northbound we only have lanes as far as I-10 (the rest are under construction), and from US 101 to CA 118. On days when traffic is good, we can now make it home in perhaps 80 minutes; our average is about 90 minutes (we’re a bit slower due to the 405 construction of late), with the worst being about 180 minutes (fire in the pass).

So do I think the lanes work? Depends what you mean by “work”. They work in that they save time for those in van and carpools, and in that aspect they reduce congestion. Do they work in enticing people out of their single-passenger cars? Probably not, because people are unaware of the time savings. There’s also a cost savings that people don’t realize. Do you know what my commuting cost is? $0. I start the van, so the van is parked at my house. Thank’s to IRS rules and contributions from Metro, my company reimburses me for my van bill up to $230. I’ve never had a bill that high. So I pay nothing to commute, plus I have lower milage on my personal vehicle, reducing auto insurance. But most people do not see that aspect.

The unsaid question in all of this, of course, is whether changing those lanes to mixed flow would improve traffic. I think there the answer is mixed. It might in the short term, but people would see the freeway moving better and move back off of surface streets… which would bring the traffic down again. I think there’s an analogy to gas
prices: do lower gas prices make gas cheaper in the long run. In both cases we’re dealing with a fixed commodity, and in both cases, the long term answer is to encourage efficient use of the resource.

Lastly, let’s address whether making HOT lanes works. I’m aware of only a few experiments — I-15 down in San Diego, I-680… and they are talking about I-10 and I-110. I haven’t seen statistics of whether they work. My thoughts are that the answer depends on price. If they are too cheap (defined as perceived to be cheaper than the additional fuel used), they will be overused, and you’ll only temporarily decrease congestion. Price them too high, and they won’t be used. There are examples of that — look at the toll roads in Orange County, which I believe are never congested. So the trick is finding the right price point that will move some traffic over.

Then there’s always the last debate: which improves congestion more: letting people buy their way into the HOV lanes, or letting Prius’ into the lanes. It really is the same thing: people paid a premium for their car to get into the HOV lanes. What was the effect of that experiment on congestion? How much less congested were the lanes today, now that the Prius stickers are no longer effective?