Like Rip Van Winkle, Massachusetts Eventually Wakes Up - Maybe

Like Rip Van Winkle, Massachusetts Eventually Wakes Up - Maybe

© David Burton 2020

Useless HOV Lanes

     In March of 2019, The Massachusetts Department of Transportation (DOT) made the following announcement:

MassDOT is lifting traffic restrictions on the South Boston Bypass Road eastbound lane and I-93 North to Logan Airport.

This pilot is an initiative by MassDOT to find out if lifting restrictions on the Bypass Road and Logan/Route 1A Express Lane will improve transportation access to the Seaport District and nearby South Boston neighborhoods.

. . . Restricted roadways will be opened to general traffic for 1-year pilot test.
(Ref. 1)

     The Logan/Route 1A Express Lane was a High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lane, originally restricted to vehicles with 3 or more occupants and then to vehicles with 2 or more occupants. Also, note that the opening of these lanes to all traffic is not permanent, as of the date of the announcement.

     Here in Massachusetts, everything attempted by the state government tends to move at a snail’s pace. Even this temporary “lifting of traffic restrictions on the South Boston Bypass Road eastbound lane and I-93 North to Logan Airport” took some four years to put in place.

     Back in September of 2015, it was announced that motorists from the South Shore of Massachusetts would have an easier commute into South Boston and to Logan Airport thanks to a pilot program by the State Department of Transportation.
     This pilot program came as a result of a study on how to alleviate traffic congestion from the south into Boston and to Logan International Airport. It looked at the northbound HOV lane from I-93 and other associated restricted roads and realized that some of them, especially in Boston’s South Station area, were grossly underutilized.
     As a result of the study’s findings, the Massachusetts Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was asked for a 6-month waiver to allow full access to the HOV lane into Logan Airport and to open up the road known as the South Boston By-pass road. This was to be a six-month pilot program.[2]

     As noted above, the plan was put into place - but only on a TEMPORARY basis - some 4-years later in 2019.

     In May of 2019, in an attempt to finally correct another 40-year-old traffic congestion nightmare, the Massachusetts DOT made the following announcement:

During your morning commute to Boston on I-93, you may be able to drive in the HOV Lane within peak traffic hours.

This HOV lane is now open to ALL TRAFFIC on a TEMPORARY basis for the duration of the Tobin Bridge/Chelsea Curves Rehabilitation Project (approximately two years).

Open to southbound HOV traffic Monday – Friday, 6 a.m.–10 a.m.

During non-HOV hours, this lane is open for all vehicles

This includes vehicles with only 1 passenger
(Ref. 3)

     So, in 2019, Massachusetts finally decided to do something about the driving mess created by outdated HOV travel lanes. Not surprising to anyone who isn’t blind, “The HOV lanes, which are intended to give vehicles with at least two occupants a more efficient travel lane, are overwhelmingly used by cars with only a driver [Emphasis mine] . . .
     “{In fact,} . . . ‘there is a closed Twitter group for people who use your carpool lane where they tweet at each other and say, ‘there’s no cops, it’s OK for single cars to use it,’ . . . we think as much as 80 or 90 percent of the traffic is actually just individual people in cars and it’s not functioning as a carpool lane.’ {Emphasis mine]
     “{In what does not come as a shock to anyone who drives on Massachusetts’ highways, a} congestion report . . . found that the few HOV lanes the state does have are ineffective because they 'do not necessarily provide sufficient travel time savings' for commuters. [Emphasis mine]
     “. . . MassDOT wants to take a more comprehensive look at its current limited network of HOV lanes — for the first time since MassDOT was preparing for the Big Dig in the early 1990s. {Some 40 years after the need for HOV lanes went away!}
     “{It’s} ‘been 30 years since MassDOT has seriously looked at the utility of high-occupancy vehicle lanes . . . A comprehensive re-thinking is long overdue.’ [Emphasis mine]
      - - -
     “The state’s most severe congestion occurs on I-93 southbound between Mystic Valley Parkway in Medford to and the Fellsway in Medford at 7 a.m. — and that same stretch of pavement hosts the state’s fifth-worst congestion slightly later in the morning.” (Ref. 4)

     A major contributor to this congestion has long been the southbound HOV lane that was limited to “high occupancy vehicles” and, as a result, has been grossly underutilized during rush-hour travel into Boston!

     Thankfully, here in 2020 – some 40 years late - this southbound HOV lane on I-93 has been opened up to all traffic, as have other former HOV lanes to Logan International Airport and elsewhere in Massachusetts - but, so far, not on a permanent basis!

     Some 15 years ago - way back in November of 2005 - I started to complain about HOV lanes in Massachusetts when I wrote: “I would like to ask the Big Dig and Massachusetts Turnpike Authority why is there an HOV lane in the first place? The HOV lane concept arose during the Arab oil embargo of the early 1970’s when there was a shortage of gasoline. Some of us remember the long lines at the gas stations and the rules imposed that allowed a car owner to buy gasoline only on odd or even days depending upon his/her license plate number. The HOV lane concept was developed in order to encourage ride sharing so that there would be fewer cars on the road thereby reducing gasoline consumption.
     “Today, there is no major gasoline shortage. There are no lines at gas pumps, and most importantly today, HOV lanes do not encourage ride sharing! Gasoline prices have certainly risen, but I don’t see the number of cars on the road decreasing. I also don’t see any increase in car pooling during the commuter rush hours. I challenge anyone to name one person who leaves their car at home in order to be able to ride in a ‘high speed’ lane. [Emphasis mine] There is a reason why the number of automobile occupants has been reduced to 2 to qualify for high occupancy status. The reason is that people don’t join commuter pools simply to ride in the HOV lane. People join commuter car pools whether or not they can drive in the HOV lane. The availability of the HOV lane is totally irrelevant today.
     “What the HOV lane currently does is to increase gasoline consumption, inconvenience the majority of commuters and increase atmospheric pollution. [Emphasis mine] During commuter rush hour, the HOV lane is unavailable to the majority of commuters, resulting in fewer lanes to carry the increased commuter traffic. This causes commuters to crawl along in rush hour traffic, burning additional fuel and slowing down their commutes to work or to home while the HOV lane is virtually empty. When a breakdown occurs in the HOV lane, traffic in the HOV lane must come to a halt since there is no way to exit the HOV lane, again resulting in additional fuel consumption and more delays for HOV lane drivers. When a breakdown occurs in the non-HOV lanes, traffic must slow down or halt there, since there is no way to use the HOV lane, again resulting in additional fuel consumption and more delays.
     “Instead of sticking to responses to a problem that existed 30 years ago, it would behoove our Big Dig and Massachusetts Turnpike Authority personnel (as well other state and federal officials) to bring their thinking and planning into the 21st century. If they don’t think conditions in 2005 are different from those in 1972, let them conduct a quick study or review to determine the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of HOV lanes. They just might find that it makes much greater sense to take the HOV lanes and add them to the other non-HOV travel lanes. By so doing, they will likely find that such a step will reduce gas consumption, speed up commuting traffic and eliminate the costs of maintaining separate HOV lanes. I also suspect that they will find that road safety is improved, since drivers will not have to worry about running into Jersey barriers or about other drivers switching lanes to get into or out of HOV lanes.”(Ref. 5)

     Back in 2007, the waste associated with Massachusetts’ underutilized HOV lanes was reported in a Boston Globe article.

     “They are like quiet country roads, rising and banking, then dipping out of view, the serenity broken by nothing more than the occasional vehicle cruising through the soft turns. Traffic is so sparse that motorists - the few that there are - usually can't see the car ahead.
     “Yet these are anything but rural byways. Rather, they are the little-known and seldom used high-occupancy vehicle lanes . . . curving in and out of the city not far from the skyscrapers of South Station. When they were opened two years ago, with their very own tunnel under the Fort Point Channel, state officials predicted they would change the way Boston area drivers commute to work.
     "They've done nothing of the sort. [Emphasis mine]
     “The roads sit largely unheralded and unused . . .
     “Even during rush hour, traffic is sparse. A Globe reporter, watching the commute for an hour one morning, counted 181 cars and buses, or about three cars a minute, in the northbound I-93 lane, which takes vehicles either to South Station or toward Logan Airport. The southbound lane, which drivers can access near the Massachusetts Turnpike interchange, carried 122 cars and buses - about two per minute - during the same period.
     “. . . far fewer commuters are using the lanes than the 1,600 cars an hour {about 27 per minute} they were designed to accommodate.
      - - -
     “But for now it's a quarter-billion-dollar engineering curiosity - a lonely carpool lane used largely by buses, taxicabs, and limousines. [Emphasis mine]
      - - -
     “The high-occupancy vehicle lanes were conceived nearly two decades ago {around 1987} to allow the Big Dig to meet state and federal clean-air rules by encouraging shared commutes. At the time, traffic planners believed Americans would carpool in droves if given an incentive, such as special-access lanes, and fewer cars would mean less pollution. But by the time the Boston lanes opened, many of those same engineers had concluded that HOV lanes did little to ease traffic gridlock. [Emphasis mine]
     “{Scant attention has been} paid to the lanes. . . The Federal Highway Administration does not require states to keep track of HOV lane use unless local planners want to open them to solo drivers.
     “Turnpike statistics . . . show the lanes carried an average of 59 to 167 vehicles per hour during the month of September {far less than the lanes’ 1,600 cars an hour capacity}. . .
     “General lanes . . . carry 10 to 20 times as many vehicles, on average. . .” (Ref. 6)

     I updated my call for an end to HOV lanes in July 2016, when I wrote: “Heading south from Boston on I-95 at rush hour, we are faced with a parking lot of ‘high-speed’ interstate highway. However, on this same highway lies a strip of virtually empty concrete known as the ‘High Occupancy Vehicle’ (HOV) lane, which is noteworthy for the very few ‘high occupancy’ vehicles actually using it. The question that needs to be asked is ‘If I and hundreds of thousands of motorists can see the utter uselessness of the HOV lanes, why can't the so-called transportation experts being paid by the taxpayers of Massachusetts come to the same conclusion?’ Isn’t it their responsibility to determine such facts and to take appropriate action?” (Ref. 7)

     Most recently, in December of 2018, I wrote, “I’ve railed long and hard against the stupid, worse than useless, and totally outdated High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes that dot major highways in the United States and in Massachusetts – my home state - in particular. But still, now nearly 50 years after they were conceptualized, and more than 40 years after their need ended, HOV lanes till exist on our highways. They continue to burden taxpayers with the cost of maintaining and upgrading them and they continue to vex the American driver. Like too many government projects, outdated and useless programs never seem to die.” (Ref. 8)

     Now, in 2020, there finally seems to be some movement toward correcting the HOV problem. I've been complaining for 15 years; the problem has existed for 40 years. Maybe, like Rip Van Winkle, Massachusetts does eventually wake up – even if it’s 40 years after it should have!

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  1. About the Bypass Road and Logan/Route 1A Express Lane pilot project, Colin A. Young, loganroute-1a-express-lane-pilot-project, Accessed 23 March 2019.
  2. Boston: 6-Month Pilot Program Lifts Restrictions on HOV Lanes into South Boston and Logan Airport, David Skill, -on-hov-lanes-into-south-boston-and-logan-airport, Accessed 22 March 2019.
  3. Interstate 93 HOV lane, hov-lane, 12 September 2019.
  4. Single Drivers Taking Over Mass. Carpool Lanes, Colin A. Young,, Accessed 22 March 2019.
  5. Outdated and thoughtless traffic planning, David Burton,; Article 07, 1 November 2005.
  6. The roads less traveled: Built to ease traffic, HOV lanes are largely unused, Noah Bierman,,
    28 October 2007.
  7. Useless HOV Lanes Will Outlive Us All, David Burton,; Article 258, 21 July 2016.
  8. HOV Stupidity Never Dies, David Burton, Son of Eliyahu: Article 345, 20 December 2018.


18 September 2020 {Article_436 State_20}    
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