Friday, May 2, 2014

Traffic Congestion and the High Occupancy Vehicle Fam-pool

Many freeways throughout the nation are congested during traditional commute hours. In fact, peak-hour congestion has long been caused by numerous commuters headed to/from work of whom drive solo in a car. The high volume of single-occupancy cars headed to the employment hubs and urban centers simply clogs several highways and roads.

A long-proven solution to address this problem is to entice commuters to share the ride by leaving the car at home or at the local park & ride and carpooling, joining a vanpool, or taking transit. The incentives to rideshare is made possible by improving mass transit connections to/from major hubs, improving high occupancy vehicle infrastructure, expanding park & ride options, enticing the private sector into placing car-sharing facilities at receiving hubs, and broadcasting strong marketing campaigns. Freeway capacity improvement projects generally should include infrastructure for high occupancy vehicles on top of lane additions.

Simply put: Just adding more and more general purpose lanes and building new freeways without HOV and transit infrastructure to reduce commute-hour congestion has the unintended consequence of driving up the demand for long-distance solo-driver commuting which jams up the system elsewhere and exacerbates the problem. Los Angeles has a long history of that. Some transit advocates claim that building more freeways to reduce congestion like trying to lose weight by loosening the belt; there is some truth to that. We don't downright oppose capacity improvement highway infrastructure projects, but such development needs to entice commuters to share the ride. The grocery industry even knows such a notion. Major supermarkets have express checkout lanes for small purchases; those express lanes compete against the convenience stores by enticing such shoppers to come into the store more often for small purchases. The same notions work for vehicles with at least two people.

As many of our freeways and congested carpool lanes now show, several commuters are sold into joining an HOV or taking transit to work, especially along the 91 Freeway into Orange County. We have a post of what officials can and should do whenever high occupancy vehicle lanes including toll lanes become congested or too popular.

Holiday Traffic Congestion and HOV's

Many parts of the Southland which includes the 91 Freeway through Corona also gets clogged on many weekends and holidays, especially between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Unlike the traditional rush hour, many of the vehicles on the road during this "driving season" are indeed high occupancy vehicles, mostly domestic HOV's known by some as fam-pools. A fam-pool is a high occupancy vehicle that consists of only family members.

So, here's the question: Should Fam-pools be allowed to use the carpool lanes or not?

Here are some facts. Generally speaking, these domestic "carpools" certainly don't remove vehicles from the road. A Lake Elsinore family taking a weekend trip to Big Bear by car can clearly demonstrate this. During rush hours, a mother driving her children to school is also a prime example since children and youth under 16 years of age cannot drive alone legally. Carpool lane dissenters often use these facts to back up their arguments toward the development of more general purpose or toll lanes that do not support free non-transponder carpooling. However, the facts suggest otherwise. The U.S. Department of Transportation regulates the HOV definition and the law states that any living human being occupying a vehicle seat which excludes babies in the womb counts as a person in the vehicle regardless of age or family relationship. Therefore, fam-pools are considered high occupancy vehicles under the current federal law.

Should the federal HOV occupant law be changed to eject fam-pools from the carpool lane?

The feds really should not. That's because the unintended consequences of doing so are serious. Therefore fam-pools should remain as a legal HOV. The fact is that there is simply no practical means of regulating or restricting fam-pools from the carpool lane without displacing other HOV's that actually reduce vehicles along the freeway. Here are some ideas we've seen to regulate the fam-pool; although well-intentioned, if one connects the dots, there will be negative unintended consequences for other HOV's. Here's how it's so: 


Why is this Greyhound Bus stuck in the regular lanes on the 91?
Placing an employer or FasTrak toll transponder pre-registration mandate to use the carpool lane sounds noble on the surface as this would drive fam-pools out of the HOV lane. But the fact is we've seen perfectly legit HOV's including some private vans headed to a business function, full Greyhound buses and private charter coaches driven out of the Southland's fast-moving high occupancy toll lanes and into slower general purpose lanes no thanks to similar pre-registration mandates to have a FasTrak toll transponder. These HOV's which carry countless amounts of people use few vehicles. There will be far more cars on the road if the passengers elected to drive. These high occupancy vehicles should be allowed to travel for free in the HOV express lanes without having to pre-register ahead of time for a toll transponder, period.

Excluding domestic family memebers from the HOV definition would wipe out the fam-pool problem off the bat, but such policy would be nearly impossible to enforce without spending outrageous amounts of law enforcement money which should otherwise be purposed toward reducing crime and enforcing other traffic laws. Even the most technologically-advanced intelligence-driven enforcement tools cannot distinguish whether the passengers in an HOV are all within a single family.

Not counting children as vehicle occupants for carpool with the intention of banning fam-pools from the HOV lane is also out of the question. That would have the unintended consequence of other HOV's being displaced like after school vans and private school buses filled with children with one adult driver. Numerous exceptions would need to be put into the federal law in order to offset displacement which would again be difficult to enforce. Last time we checked, putting these children on the bus or in the van instead of driving reduces traffic congestion. Again, these loaded vehicles should be allowed into the carpool lane.

Here is perhaps a perfect example of why fam-pools cannot be expelled from the carpool lane which pretty much wipes out this entire debate: A family who lives in Perris has a father who works in Loma Linda and the kids attend a private school near Downtown Riverside. On days where his work schedule is in sync with the school's, the father can elect to drive the kids to school on his way to work instead of the mother having to take a separate school trip from Perris to Riverside and back. Because the school and commute trips are combined, the ride segment between Perris and Riverside is shared and therefore can be counted as a legit carpool that actually reduces a vehicle on the I-215 freeway. Do you think dad should be able to drive in the I-215 carpool lane between Moreno Valley and Riverside? You make the call.

We can go on all day trying to debate and figure out a way to address the fam-pool issue. Because of the complexity, the feds should keep the HOV occupant definition as is. The solution is to continue to grant any high occupancy vehicle full and free access to the freeway and carpool/tolled express lane infrastructure regardless of who is in the car and use the ideas we've posted here as solutions to improve carpool lane capacity whenever they become too popular. That is the fair and just thing to do.

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