Monday, October 7, 2013

Carpool Lanes: Debating the "Open to All" option outside of rush hours

Proposed: SANDAG proposes high occupancy toll lanes along the I-15 from Eastvale through the Cajon Pass. During times of extraordinary traffic incidents like accidents, temporarily opening the HOT lanes to all for free with continuous access would be justifiable. In this concept, the I-15 HOT lanes are open to all with continuous access due to an accident 5 miles ahead while the I-10 HOT lanes remain open to carpools or FasTrak traffic only
Should carpool lanes really be opened up to all during off-peak hours? The Transit Coalition's A Better Inland Empire transit blog answers that question. Last week, Governor Jerry Brown vetoed AB 405 by Assemblymember Mike Gatto which would have opened the segments of the carpool lanes along the 134 and 210 Freeways in Los Angeles County to solo drivers outside of commute hours. According the Press Enterprise and several other sources, AB 405 had bipartisan support, passing unanimously in the Senate and had near unanimous support in the Assembly. However, Brown in his veto message said, "Carpool lanes are especially important in Los Angeles County to reduce pollution and maximize use of freeways. We should retain the 24/7 carpool lane control." He may have a point.

To be fair, traffic patterns on some freeways may dispute Brown's statement even though opening the carpool lanes for single-occupant vehicles on SR-134 and I-210, even if only during off-peak hours, is very questionable. The Transit Coalition does not support opening up the carpool lanes to all road users in such a fashion. A better idea is allowing local Los Angeles officials, even if it be the local Caltrans district, to have the authority to manage the carpool occupancy requirements and enforcement periods on a corridor-by-corridor basis, since local users and traffic engineers are the ones most familiar with the traffic flow of these freeways, not Sacramento. We all remember what happened with the El Monte Busway. Some basic statewide regulations will be required, especially to prevent political abuse at the local level, but basic carpool lane management certainly should certainly be done locally. For what it's worth, Assemblymember Gatto does represent the region, where SR-134 and a small portion of I-210 pass through.

This is a debatable and complicated topic. That's why we cannot support AB 405 or any other similar proposal right off the bat. As mentioned, history shows the I-10 El Monte Busway cannot be managed from Sacramento; it has to be done in LA. Another issue: How many high occupancy vehicles are choosing to drive in the general purpose lanes and why so? What is the just and right thing to do in cases where an accident or emergency crews are blocking the general purpose lanes? It's time for some straight talk.

Allow local law enforcement and Caltrans to temporarily open carpool lane access during a road incident

Both of Riverside County's major local newspapers, Press Enterprise and the Union Tribune, supported opening carpool lanes outside of rush hours as fewer cars use the lanes during free-flow hours, but it was the UT that hit the nail on the head. Here's a valid point that the editorial made:

Example: Opening up a HOT lane system to allow all traffic to bypass blocked lanes caused by a brush fire 5 miles ahead. Vehicles would also be granted continuous access.
Most everyone in San Diego who commutes by freeway has no doubt encountered an accident or road work that clogs the regular lanes during the middle of the day or at night while the carpool lanes are practically vacant. The whole idea of carpool lanes is to encourage ride-sharing, but sometimes that just isn’t feasible.

And that's true. If there's a sigalert, traffic collision, construction, maintenance work, hazard, or any other acute road incident that is tying up traffic in the general purpose lanes, allowing law enforcement and Caltrans to temporarily open up the high occupancy vehicle lane to allow such traffic to pass through would absolutely be justified. This includes relaxing access restrictions by allowing drivers to cross over the double white/yellow lines. Digital freeway signs would announce such permissions.

The PE mentioned in its editorial that "letting the carpool lanes sit empty while drivers struggle with heavy traffic on the rest of the freeway does not cut pollution or ease congestion; it merely angers motorists." In the case of a road incident, that is absolutely true. State law should also allow such cases to be applied to high occupancy toll lanes including the 91 Express Lanes. Both Caltrans and law enforcement should have the authority to open dedicated lanes to allow traffic to pass through in these extraordinary circumstances which includes permitting vehicles to cross over the double white/yellow lines. There is no reason whatsoever to suggest otherwise.

Debate: Opening up HOV lanes during off-peak hours regularly

Outside of traffic incidents, the notion of opening up carpool lanes to all during off-peak hours is debatable. Therefore, The Transit Coalition does not support this notion. Debates and decisions should take place locally on a corridor-by-corridor basis with all political bias set aside and with professional engineers writing up formulas based on fact-based data to aid local leaders in managing such lanes. The same holds true of determining whether such facilities should allow for continuous access or have dedicated access points. There are some freeways that experience very few vehicles in the carpool lane outside of peak hours, but certainly not all. Generally speaking, policies need to ensure the carpool lane remains moving at all times outside of acute traffic incidents. A firm valid objection is creating a circumstance where opening up the carpool lane to all would fill it beyond capacity during off-peak hours with solo drivers. That could be a concern for freeways in the Los Angeles area where high occupancy vehicle travel demand is high. The facts, history and various traffic patterns on different freeways are overwhelming. Here are some examples:

I-10 El Monte Busway: The El Monte Busway is an 11 mile shared-use bus corridor and high occupancy toll lane running along I-10 between downtown Los Angeles and the El Monte Bus Station. It has a long history, but in 1999, a state bill lowered the carpool occupancy requirement from three occupants to two to take place on January 1, 2000. This was intended to be a 2 year experiment but it was cancelled after only 6 months in which it congested the busway. Local transit agencies opposed the state measure, demonstrating why local officials need some decision making power to manage their high occupancy vehicle lanes. Emergency state legislation was needed and passed in July 2000 to terminate the experiment during peak hours. Currently, 3's a carpool during rush hours in both directions, 2 at other times along the El Monte Busway. All carpools must also have a switchable FasTrak transponder to travel for free in the current HOT lane system.

91 Freeway into Orange County: As many are aware, the 91 Freeway into Orange County consistently reaches unpredictable "rush hour" states well beyond the traditional peak commute hours. Right off the bat, we can safely say that the freeway's general purpose lanes and the 2+ carpool lane through Corona start to slow shortly after the lunch hour on Friday's and is congested pretty much all day and through the evening on many weekends and holidays, especially in the eastbound direction. The freeway gets worse on hot days as people headed to coastal areas and the beach to cool off fill the 91, most have at least 2 people in the car. The 91 Express Lanes is a 24/7 transponder-mandated 3+ high occupancy toll lane facility. Given the high demands for high occupancy vehicle travel in the corridor to the point where even 2+ carpool lanes are insufficient during rush hours, hot summer days and weekends, the 3+ HOT/FasTrak lanes positively cannot be opened to all outside of traditional commute hours. That would be chaotic for the entire corridor. Probably the only feasible times to regularly open the 91 Express Lanes to all would be during the late night hours.

Proposed: SANDAG proposes high occupancy toll lanes along the I-15 through the Cajon Pass. This Caltrans photo shows the existing freeway at a free-flowing state during the middle of a weekday. Opening the HOT lanes to all for free is certainly debatable and questionable. How many of the cars passing through do you think are high occupancy vehicles?
Inland Empire Freeways where the carpool lane may look empty: These freeway segments are typically at a free flowing state during the middle of the day and weekends. Therefore, the carpool lane may often look empty:
  • SR-60 Carpool lanes between Moreno Valley and the Badlands hills
  • Proposed I-215 Carpool lanes between Moreno Valley and Perris
  • Proposed I-15 Carpool lanes between Murrieta and Lake Elsinore
  • Proposed I-15 High Occupancy Toll Lanes through the Cajon Pass
  • Proposed I-15 High Occupancy Toll Lanes between Temecula and Escondido
Opening the carpool lane to all along these freeways is certainly debatable under the current demographics and traffic patterns. It's a bit more complex than it looks. There are valid questions and arguments for both and against. The Transit Coalition will thus not necessarily support such a move due to these complexities.

Here's an interesting reality of such free-flowing freeways. Some HOV's won't even bother to weave across the freeway lanes to use the carpool lane during free-flow hours simply because there is no need to. That of course drives down the number of vehicles in the lane. Whenever an extraordinary circumstance such as an accident comes up unannounced, more folks including carpools are stuck in the regular lanes, especially if the carpool lane has restricted access points. This creates the problem of empty carpool lanes and congested general purpose lanes. One solution, as mentioned, is to allow law enforcement and Caltrans to temporarily open the carpool lane to all during extraordinary circumstances and to permit vehicles to cross over the double lines if there are restrictions.

Long term solutions would include finding ways to integrate the lanes better with dense activity centers. This would include the development of direct access ramps and transit infrastructure. HOV's may therefore be inclined to take the carpool lane during off-peak hours.

I-215 Carpool Lanes under construction between Riverside and San Bernardino: The mainline is heavily used all throughout the day, and the two county seats move many people all day long with the presence of an all day Omnitrans express bus route. Should the private sector invest in the city centers, high occupancy vehicle demand may be high enough where night owl transit service may be feasible. The carpool lane should therefore remain 24/7 with long term plans to link the lane directly to the transit centers.

I-215 Carpool Lanes between Riverside and Moreno Valley: This segment of the I-215 is consistently high in volume due to the merge of SR-60 from Moreno Valley and I-215 from Perris. Carpool demands are consistently high. A recent Coalition field study through this area showed the eastbound 2+ carpool lane between Riverside and Moreno Valley filled to near capacity on a Friday night at 9 PM as the general purpose lanes were heavy, well past the traditional rush hour. With the growth of logistics jobs in the area, this corridor certainly should maintain its 24/7 enforcement with long term plans for a dual HOV express lane system with bus transit infrastructure and upgraded corridor-based passenger rail service. More on that at later time.

Other freeway corridors with regular slowing in the general purpose lanes outside of rush hour: The long term solution needs to be exploring additional high occupancy vehicle travel options. This includes improving mass transit services and carpool marketing outside the traditional commute hour.

The carpool lane system through Interstate 10 in Ontario certainly should remain at 24/7 operations. This midday Caltrans photo shows the freeway and the carpool lane at a heavy, but stable state. Seven high occupancy vehicles are pictured in the carpool lane. There may be more in the general purpose lanes.
Due to these variants, changes such as carpool lane enforcement periods and occupancy requirements should be based upon fact-based traffic patterns and freeway segment data put together by local engineers working under the local Caltrans district or the local transportation agency such as the Riverside County Transportation Commission. The results certainly should be brought up for robust debate in managing carpool lanes and ensuring they are moving always. Infrastructure should be designed in ways that high occupancy vehicles would be inclined to use the dedicated lanes. Any statewide laws and formulas involving carpool lanes should be based on sound traffic engineering studies, not ideology.

What about AB 405?

How do the SR-134 and I-210 freeways in Los Angeles County fit into this category in relationship with the vetoed bill? Would AB 405 work specifically for these corridors? We'll let the experts working in Burbank, Glendale and Pasadena make that judgement. If engineers conclude that these freeways have a high volume of high occupancy vehicles traveling in the general purpose lanes, keep the carpool lane open 24/7 and find ways to integrate the lanes better with direct access ramps and transit infrastructure. The greater Los Angeles area has very high occupancy vehicle travel rates as demonstrated by transit routes with high ridership figures, especially along the El Monte Busway.

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