Making Public Transportation Work, Part 6: High Occupancy Vehicle Lanes

High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes are the sixth element of public transportation services to be covered in this National Bus Trader series. Previous segments of this series covered other missing elements: Alternative Work Schedules (, Park-and-Ride Lots (; Feeder Service (; System Design and Networks ( and Ridesharing.

This segment covering HOV lanes somewhat overlaps some points made in the Ridesharing installment. However, this is somewhat true of every element in this series. This is so because, in an optimal system, all elements must work together. And, working together, one element necessarily overlaps or intersects with fellow elements. This is more true for ridesharing and HOV lanes which should have been designed to encourage the greater use of buses, since the success of ridesharing to bus stops, train stations and park-and-ride lots depended largely on the existence of faster-moving, higher-occupancy roadways in return – to offset the time lost by the “feeder vehicles” (i.e., ridesharing) traveling to those train stations, bus stops or park-and-ride lots, or “collector points.”

Goals and Misfocus
As noted, the enlightened hope of ridesharing was that many vehicles with higher occupancies would travel to selected “collector points” (or from them on return trips), where the passengers could transfer to or from a transportation mode that could carry far more passengers per vehicle than could personal occupancy vehicles (POVs) — buses or trains. But our nation’s colossal failure to design an intelligible transportation network failed to provide the number of collector points (mostly park-and-ride lots) needed, as well as the volume and diversity of quick-moving large vehicles to which the park-and-ride passengers could transfer. The goal (or what should have been the goal) – as noted in the previous installment – was the lowest number of vehicle miles per person travelled:
50 people driving 50 miles each, alone, in their personal cars, would translate into 2500 vehicle miles (or 50 VM/P).

With those same 50 people driving to a collector point five miles away, and then transferring to a bus, their combined travel would translate into only 300 vehicle miles (or six miles per person (250 vehicle miles to the collector point) plus only 50 more vehicle miles (with all 50 passengers traveling on a bus or train that transported them from the collector point to their destination[s]).

Where ridesharing and HOV lanes went off the rails was that the two phenomena were not oriented toward the use of public transportation. Instead, most ridesharing focused on shared rides as an alternative to single-person rides in personal vehicles – largely a failure of not only the combination of too few park-and-ride lots, insufficient public transportation modes and poorly-designed public transportation networks, but the policy failures of HOV lanes. Instead of setting HOV lane policies to encourage a mode split from POVs to public transportation – which, again, would have required both more buses (mostly) and trains and more park-and-ride lots – HOV policies simply resulted in a slightly-smaller number of single-occupancy vehicles. In other words, ridesharing never became an element of a public transportation system at all. Stupidly (the term “foolishly” would be too kind), ridesharing was designed to serve as an alternative to public transportation.

This misdirection accounted largely for the limited success of HOV lanes and ride-sharing – again, a failure enhanced by the parallel failure to provide the public transportation elements (more buses and trains, and more park-and-ride lots) to which ridesharing should have been directed. As an asterisk, some park-and-ride lots still exist and operate successfully (mostly for convenient access to mid-distance destinations where parking is confusing or costly). Examples include park-and-ride service to airports, where airport parking requires the driver to navigate through a labyrinth of paths to the next vacant parking spot in the airport’s “fringe lots.” to remember where this spot was when the air traveler returns to it airport-of-origin, and to then travel between his or her vehicle and the airport via a shuttle service – typically one that runs infrequently. More stupidly, travel by park-and-ride shuttles (and often separate payments for parking in those lots) cost the travelers money – where, to alleviate traffic and at least encourage the use of shared-ride vehicles, the use of these facilities should have been free for motorists traveling with other passengers. But even without ridesharing, these park-and-ride lots are examples of success: They decrease vehicle miles per passenger to collector points with larger vehicles (in this example, airports). But even train stations with ample parking facilitate this goal – again, even without any ridesharing to or from the parking lot.

HOV Lane Policy-Making Diarrhea
Unsettling HOV lane policies have their origins in the early emergence of HOV lanes. I had the interesting task of editing perhaps the first full-scale analysis of HOV lane successes and failures as a Project Manager for Public Technology, Inc, in the mid-1970 – a time when most of the great ideas for public transportation emerged, and after which all or most of their promises were quickly squandered.
The central lesson about HOV lanes was that when an existing lane was transformed from a regular travel lane to a more-restricted HOV lane, the majority of regular personal car or small truck users (SUVs did not exist at this time) now squeezed into one fewer lane resented the use of an entire lane for the small number of buses and high-occupancy cars or trucks given the right to operate at higher speeds in the HOV lane. And they rebelled politically. This is because, as a consequence, the traffic increased in the one-fewer travel lanes that the vast majority of motorists were now forced to travel in. In contrast, HOV lanes were more accepted when a community (or a State or County) constructed an additional lane on which these vehicles could travel.

In either case, intelligent and/or creative things could have been done to soften this resentment – or to encourage more people to use HOV lanes. One of them, of course, would have been to add the other elements, noted above, that made HOV travel more desirable – more buses and trains. And more park-and-ride lots. Or we could have not charged parking fees at park-and-ride lots, or even allowed those vehicles using these lots to purchase a limited amount of fuel at a lower cost (if not simply allowing them to add a few gallons for free) – a practice actually employed at many Walmart stores. Of course, we did neither. Nor did we do anything else among a broad range of creative possibilities.

Instead, we diluted the number of people who would need to ride in a vehicle allowed in an HOV lane – for example, from three (most common at first) or four passengers to two. In the latter case, all those commuters (often husbands and wives or neighbors) who had simply paired up before the HOV lanes emerged simply began traveling in the HOV lanes – accomplishing nothing but allowing those lucky few to travel much faster, and further deterring their need to travel by bus or train. The entire range of creative measures to encourage large personal vehicle occupancy – ranging from free fuel to even travel “rebates” – evaporated from the thought horizon, if such ideas ever materialized at all.

The reader must again keep in mind that the entire ridesharing approach – and the colossal waste of money for HOV lanes – both mistakes to begin with as they were used, since the intelligent goal was to place more and more commuters onto public transportation. Neither ridesharing nor HOV lanes accomplished this – although, in fairness, they did speed up travel times (for the HOV segment of a trip) for those travelers who rode buses (in the much-less-trafficked HOV lanes). But this perk was hardly enough to effect the “mode split” needed to reduce transit subsidies significantly. Plus, as the number of passenger needed to enter HOV lanes was diminished to two passengers per vehicle, and enforcement of “cheaters” (i.e., single-occupancy motorists) decreased from year to year as the U.S. Jobs Elimination Program (JEP) unfolded, some HOV lanes actually experienced traffic. No worse failure, and no greater waste of public funds, can be imagined.
In simple terms, ridesharing was an institutional acknowledgement that public transportation was a failure – and, of course, the development of ridesharing contributed to this failure. Similarly, the HOV lane experiment was an abysmal failure, and wasted hundreds of billions (or perhaps trillions) of taxpayers’ dollars.

Failures at the Other End
Illustrating once again the squandering of great ideas of the 1970s, parking lots at the time (in the inner city) usually cost the same, per vehicle, irrespective of the number of occupants in those vehicles, The brilliant professor (Dr. Joseph Foa) for whom I worked, as a teaching assistant, and then a teacher, at George Washington University from 1972 through 1976, felt that “progressive vehicle occupancy” should have been employed as a feature of parking lot pricing – and that any losses should be subsidized by the government – if they could not simply be adjusted as a rate-setting matter. In simple terms, Dr. Foa envisioned a reverse-occupancy sliding scale:

  • Vehicles arriving with a single occupant would be charged the most. In Today’s terms, where $70/day is typical in Lower Manhattan, a vehicle occupied by a single individual might be charged $150.
  • Vehicles arriving with two occupants could be charged $60 (where in many cases, this fee would be lessened further as the vehicles’ occupants split the cost).
  • Vehicles with three occupants could park for $30.
  • Vehicles with four or more occupants would pay nothing.
  • Ideally, once these dynamics were analyzed – including (a) how much (if any) government subsidies would be needed, (b) how much excess revenue was made by the parking lot owners and (c) what the impacts of such policies had on vehicle occupancy – these charges could be modified. While it has its challenges, when one thinks about this approach, perhaps the idea of free transit is not as zany as many might thinks. Of course, in a nation controlled by the Uber-Rich, such an approach is likely to be less successful than it is popular. But for all but the super-Rich, such a structure could not help but increase ridesharing – although it would have little impact on the mode-split from POVs to public transportation services.

    Modern Elements and Protoplasm
    No matter how much steel, rubber, glass and plastic one can muster, and regardless of how it is packaged into vehicles of various sizes, these elements and their packaging (including design, engineering and marketing, for starters) will not make a difference if the right numbers of the resulting vehicles are not deployed intelligibly – accompanied by the facilities needed to accommodate them (like more park-and-ride lots, adequate free parking at bus stops and train stations, and intelligible inner-city parking fee structures). To be fair, this feat is much more difficult to accomplish in a country based on elections, where the selfishness of the masses translates into votes, and skews decisions that should be made in the interests of all.

    While their populations bemoan the loss of freedom, solutions to problems like traffic are made far more easily in nations controlled by autocrats or “strongmen.” Recently solutions to traffic in places like Nairobi, Kenya – like serious HOV lanes — are not terribly popular in more “democratic” countries. But where forcefully employed, these innovations are creating a mode split that is badly needed in large, international cities. There is a reason why individuals who actually accomplish things are characterized as leaders. Regardless, most modern countries where most people can afford private automobiles cannot seem to control traffic, even where their inner city public transportation systems are excellent. One example is Paris, which has an ingenious passenger rail system whose crisscrossing lines provide its passengers with multiple choices. Yet Parisian streets – and particularly the highways leading to and from the City – are overflowing with congestion because the services in the surrounding suburbs are grossly insufficient, similar to the problems in the United States, noted above. Paris’ commuter traffic is considered, by some, to be the world’s worst.

    Interestingly, on the brink of total collapse from traffic gridlock, the much-needed, long-overdue reappearance of old ideas are emerging. One striking example is the recent re-emergence of traffic cops in New York City (and possibly other major U.S. cities where traffic is threatening to diminish the success of a range of businesses from high technology to tourism). One now finds traffic cops not merely in Manhattan, but in high-density “boroughs” like Brooklyn and Queens.

    Desperation and Motivation
    Desperation is a key common denominator in such solutions. Keep in mind that while every science student beginner knows that a switch (like a traffic cop, who can make decisions based on minute-by-minute changes in traffic volumes) is far superior to a hub (like a traffic signal, which can be programmed to make only slight adjustments within a limited range of activity). A traffic cop can direct traffic onto the wrong side of the roadway to bypass a double-parked vehicle clogging up a lane. Or move hundreds of vehicles quickly through highly-traveled arterial streets while those few vehicles stacking up on side streets wait for several minutes – after which all of the latter are released. No traffic signal can do things like this – and the likelihood that some form of artificial intelligence may some day do so is a long way off technologically – and a longer way off politically: We have drones that can “take out” an undesirable foreign official (or direct another weapon to do so) and note that the target was smiling when struck, while not a drop of blood gets splattered on the target’s companion a few feet away. Yet we do not deploy such technology to even “ticket” the selfish criminals who weave in and out on our freeways at 90 mph while rarely signaling. Yet robots abound to ticket inner-city motorists traveling a single mile per hour above the speed limit.

    My explanation for this seeming irony is that the vehicles caught speeding “by a hair” in the inner city are either ordinary motorists – including plenty of the “Powerless Poor” – while the perpetrators on the freeway tend to operate only two types of vehicles: (a) high-end SUVs and (b) sports cars. The owners of both tend to be relatively or extremely rich. A similar phenomenon is reflected in tailgating – like owners of pickup trucks, who tend to view those operating mere sedans as so many “Liberals.” As the owner of both a sedan and a pickup truck, thousands of episodes of these experiences have given me an acceptable sample. In my pickup truck, I am never tailgated by anyone, in any type of vehicle. In my sedan, I am constantly tailgated by pickup trucks and 18-wheelers. (Because pickup trucks and 18-wheelers do not have the acceleration capabilities, they are rarely among the 90 mph, non-signaling freeway weavers).

    Like most of the content in this installment, and many others in this series, it is beyond unfortunate that things are the way they are, that our people are the way they are, and that, as a consequence, our public transportation systems are on the brink of collapse. Along the way, of course, lie not only the failures to adapt a host of brilliant solutions that would have worked had they been assembled intelligibly, and at the needed scale, but the intrusion of new modes and services which openly acknowledge their goals to be the disruption of existing modes and services. I am speaking here largely of Uber, Lyft and other TNCs (transportation network companies) – see “Bad Regulations and Worse Responses, Part 1: Introduction” (; “Bad Regulations and Worse Responses, Part 2: The Rise, Fall and Transformation of SuperShuttle” (; “Bad Regulations and Worse Responses, Part 3: Invasion of the TNCs” (; “Bad Regulations and Worse Responses, Part 4: Judicial Heroism” (; “Bad Regulations and Worse Responses, Part 5: Executive Branch Responses” (; “Bad Regulations and Worse Responses, Part 6: Industry and Association Responses” (, and “Bad Regulations and Worse Responses, Part 7: Conclusions” (

    National Bus Trader did its best to warn 4000 motorcoach owners and operators about TNCs – which have, in recent years, penetrated the schoolbus, transit and motorcoach sectors. But warning motorcoach operators about this plunder, or providing it with viable alternatives (which have been employed literally by airline companies! – has accomplished nothing. The dominance of TNCs simply replacing taxis was recently placed “on hold” only by the extent of its success: Inundated by Ubers – which reached 15,000 in New York City by the end of 2015 (and did not pay the then-$1.1M medallion fee per taxi), when National Bus Trader began covering its decimation of that City’s (and the nation’s) 13,000-vehicle taxi systems, new mayor Eric Adams finally “capped” the number of Ubers in the City at 60,000 (in 2022). Of course, at that point, when many NYC residents would chop off a finger before riding in an Uber, and taxis are few and far between (despite their adoption of their own “app,” known as “Curb”), many frustrated travelers simply hold up their arms in taxi-flagging style, and are quickly accommodated by private motorists (usually operating clean, relatively-modern SUVs) without taxi permits, meters, or even operable seatbelts – which many residents and visitors (including myself) gladly hop into for a ride. At least my personal information, and that of every single person in my social media network, is not stolen, as it is by Uber and Lyft. Plus, such drivers receive no less training (or marginally less training) than any Uber or Lyft driver. And, of course. The drivers (not some crooked “broker”) get to keep 100% of the fares. So frankly, to me at least, such vehicles are preferable to anything but a licensed taxi – even while the insurance coverage of these vehicles is likely even less than that provided by Uber or Lyft drivers while their drivers are operating “on the platform.” (For all one knows, many of these drivers may be Uber or Lyft drivers simply operating “off the platform” – when Uber’s or Lyft’s insurance does not apply, and where the driver gets to keep all the money, accept cash, and cannot steal the passengers’ personal information.) How could Uber or Lyft possibly know about them as long as their drivers sign “off the platform,” since most TNC drivers operate their own personal cars, and no TNC has the right to determine what its drivers do “off the platform” — with their personal cars or any other personal property?

    In simple terms, the loss of institutional control has led to institutional chaos. In modes like taxi service, much of the service is now provided by plain-old motorists. In the 50th year of the JEP, the notion that our skeleton of law enforcement officials can make a dent on this circumvention of “official” vehicles is a laughingstock. Even further, the majority of voters may not even wish that such control be exercised – much less with their hard-earned taxpayers’ money.

    A summary of how American cities have lost the battle with traffic, and how their public transportation systems have collapsed to cause it, will be covered in the final installment of this series, to come: “Making Public Transportation Work, Part 7: The Cost of Failure.” Those National Bus Trader readers who have kept pace with these failures by reading previous installments about “Making Public Transportation Work” (available via the links mentioned near the top of this article, as well as through online back-issues of National Bus Trader) have a head start. Fixing this mess – which I consider undoable – is another thing.

    But the marionettes need not worry: They can escape traffic in their electric-powered, energy-draining helicopter taxis, which take off from, and land on, Manhattan’s tall building rooftops. For those averse to the rumble of VTOL take-offs, as one learned from that classic folk song titled “The Old Gray Mare,” those pricy top floor penthouses “ain’t what they used to be.”

    Publications: National Bus Trader.