I love the carpool lane when traffic is gnarly and heavily congested, and I have the required amount of passengers (usually two or more in most areas) in my vehicle.

But I hate the carpool lane when I’m driving solo, have to be someplace 5 minutes ago and traffic is “not nice”. And there’s that damn far left-hand lane with nary a car cruising by every now and then, while me and everyone else sits and stews.

Even when I’m reaping the benefits of the carpool lane – which is a rarity – I cannot help but curse its existence and question its effectiveness. I’ve long ago come to the conclusion that the carpool/commuter lane (or the not so warm and fuzzy Department of Transportation’s official designator: “High Occupancy Vehicles” lane or “HOV”) is a big, fat failure of a government-initiated experiment, because it can be argued that it reverses some of the intended benefits and/or just plain doesn’t work as intended, period. So why don’t they just admit to it, pull the plug and give us back some of that seldom-used highway real estate so that we can put it to better and more regular use?

Well, one day they just might do that. And probably for the very same reason that Caltrans and like-others in other states so fervently pushed the project through in the first place – it creates work. The various state transportation departments, all of whom benefited greatly by the construction hours of the HOV lanes, will relive a similar bonanza if it’s necessary to remove by revision the existing carpool lanes across the country.

But wait, what of the carpool lanes noble and most notable legacy as protector and savior of the environment? Surely, air quality control groups and institutions have championed the cause as well and can demonstrate some measure of success with factual, supportive data. Unfortunately, as it turns out, this legacy is more legend than legit.

Ride-sharing became a patriotic responsibility in wartime 1940’s. As a result of oil and rubber rationing, the U. S. government dealt with the limited fuel supply by imposing a lower “Victory Speed” limit and encouraging car-sharing clubs with slogans like “When you ride alone you ride with Hitler!” Whoa! High treason implications?

California was at the forefront of HOV lane construction in response to the OAPEC oil crisis of 1973. But even though the crisis eventually lifted, carpool lane construction continued across the country as a means of relieving traffic congestion and addressing environmental concerns.

However in all regions, carpooling never caught on very well at all; the initial number of users projected (or more accurately, intentionally exaggerated) 38 years ago did not materialize and the actual numbers have been steadily dwindling ever since. Most knowledgeable, interested observers (e.g. officials other than Caltrans and similar conflicted entities) agree that the numbers do not support the enormous cost of building and maintaining these underutilized lanes.

However, it’s not just about numbers. Some of the other publicized intentions in support of carpool lanes are:

1. They reduce emissions. They would, if there actually were fewer vehicles on the road. The fact is they increase emissions, because of the unavailability of the lane to at least 90% of the vehicles, more cars are sitting, snarled in traffic, idling away, remaining on the roadways much longer, thereby emitting more pollutants overall into the atmosphere.

2. They reduce fuel consumption. See Question 1.

3. They reduce stress and provide easier commutes for users. That is absolutely true! Although, talk to the folks in the other (clogged up) lanes and you’ll get a different story. A rise in “road rage” incidents can be directly, at least partially, linked to drivers spending much of their commute impersonating sardines in a tight can.

Now we are starting to see so-called “express” lanes intermixed with existing carpool lanes. This creative conversion goes back to my earlier statement — It creates work (and earmarks funding) for Caltrans. Of course it is publically presented as a revenue-generator and a good-will offering to the poor solo driver who can’t handle languishing in slow, snarled traffic. But I see it as an expensive band-aid cover-up that will never provide the promised relief, nor produce the financial return necessary to make it a solid idea in the first place. You can’t polish a turd.

If you are unfamiliar with Express Lanes (locally having popped up on Hwys 680 and 580) – it is the first response to the carpool debacle – an attempt to entice drivers into a pay-to-play scenario; but the number of indulgers has been dreadfully low so far despite a huge construction price tag. And rest assured, there will be other irrational, inefficient and expensive band-aid ideas to follow, until mercifully someone comes up with a reasonably productive solution. Flying cars (Jetsons-style) — now there’s an idea whose time has (almost) come.

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