Solo Carpoolers: Do HOV Lanes Discriminate?

As much as it might sound like an oxymoron, “solo carpoolers” are allowed to use the high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane on California freeways if they drive hybrid and electric cars. But now a new law that would extend that privilege to up to 40,000 more individual motorists has prompted a debate over the value and even the fairness of the well-intentioned and seemingly innocuous “carpool” lanes.

The new law would grant permits to solitary drivers beginning in 2012, to use the diamond lane if they are riding in new models of environmentally-friendly cars such as the Nissan Leaf, Toyota Prius and the Chevrolet Volt, which is due out later this year.

Backers of the new law say it was needed because new cars are being built with technology – such as plug-in hybrid electric vehicles – that was not available when the state began permitting fuel-efficient cars to use carpool lanes. They also argue that it will provide an incentive for motorists to upgrade to cars equipped with the new technology. Opponents argued that carpool lanes have already become too congested because of all the special permits for solo drivers.

Hybrids such as the Prius, Ford Fusion and Honda Civic run on batteries and gasoline, with the Prius getting the best mileage at about 45 miles per gallon. New plug-in hybrids contain more batteries than those models and can be recharged, upping mileage to 70 miles per gallon and more. Prior to signing the new carpool bill, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed another bill that extended the current carpool privileges for owners of electric vehicles and cars running on compressed natural gas until Jan. 1, 2015.

But the debate on permits has also raised the question about the proper use of carpool lanes among drivers in a state that has long been wrestling with traffic congestion, its environmental impact and ways to minimize both.

To many drivers it is fundamentally unfair to allow cars with only one person in them to be in the HOV lane simply because they’re fuel-efficient. Cars such as the Prius or the Leaf are expensive and beyond the reach of low-income drivers. Offering a permit to people who can afford those cars essentially provides the wealthy with special access to roads paid for by all taxpayers.

By requiring drivers of the plug-ins to have at least one passenger before riding in the HOV lane, they would have the additional positive environmental impact of saving gas while taking at least one other car off the road. Such logic fits well with the notion that by reducing the number of cars on the freeway, carpool lanes reduce congestion, cut down on idling in traffic and allow those using the HOV lane to move swiftly. If anything, proponents argue, eliminate a solo lane for another car pool lane.

The new law has also brought out the people who question the benefits of carpool lanes in the first place. Do neighbors and co-workers really band together every morning, coffee mugs in hand, for their ride to the office? Or are HOV lanes used more by soccer moms in SUVs full of kids? Instead of making a special lane for cars, why not use the space for mass transit? A light rail system along the highways would prompt more people to leave their cars at home and reduce emissions. Regardless of how many miles a plug-in can go on a gallon of gas, they still take up space on the highway.

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