Outdated and thoughtless traffic planning

Outdated and thoughtless traffic planning

© David Burton 2005

Underutilized HOV Lanes

Outdated HOV Lanes

On Page B2 of the City & Region section of the October 17th Boston Sunday Globe, it was reported that , ďThe HOV lane {on Rte I-93 South} will connect to a new add-lane on the {Zakim} bridge, allowing HOV traffic to continue straight into the southbound tunnel, according to Big Dig and Massachusetts Turnpike Authority spokesman Doug Hanchett.Ē

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 1970ís 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 donít see the number of cars on the road decreasing. I also donít 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 ďhigh speedĒ lane. 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 donít 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. 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 donít 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.

A thoughtless traffic solution

So, here I am, driving north on a major interstate road in Massachusetts at 5 PM on a workday. Iím in the right hand travel lane, approaching the turnoff to another major interstate highway that I want to take. Iím doing 65 MPH when I notice several cars passing me on the right in the breakdown lane. Are these people crazy? Donít they know itís illegal to drive in the breakdown lane? But wait, I see a sign that says itĎs OK to drive in the breakdown lane during the evening rush hour.

The drivers of the cars in the breakdown lane that are passing me may not be all that crazy but the people who came up with this idea must be. What is the breakdown lane for in the first place? My uneducated guess is that itís for vehicles that break down, i.e., vehicles that are unable to go and their drivers have pulled over into the breakdown lane to wait for assistance. How would you like to be sitting in your car waiting for a tow truck with a car or truck bearing down on you at 70 MPH? Have you ever had a flat tire on the road and pulled over to change the tire? How would you feel, looking up and seeing someone coming straight at you at 70 MPH?

I can relate to this problem since I had a car totaled in a similar situation. My wife had gone shopping at a greater Boston Shopping Mall. She was returning on one of the major highways north of Boston when the car stopped running. There was no breakdown lane, but she pulled over to the right of the road. A good Samaritan stopped and helped push the car onto the shoulder of the road. My wife then went to call for road assistance and called the police to inform them of the stalled-out car. By then the car had been rear ended and totaled. Fortunately, no one was in my car when it was struck and the people in the other car were uninjured. Had my wife stayed in the car or been standing beside the car, the results could have been very different.

Getting back to my drive north, let me say that itís very disconcerting getting ready to make a right turn from the right hand travel lane when there are vehicles passing me on the right at high speed in the breakdown lane. But, at least I am in a moving car with a reasonable chance of avoiding these vehicles. When you are stuck in the breakdown lane, you donít get this chance.

Travel in breakdown lanes is also permitted on highways during construction or in emergencies. In these cases, however, the situation is temporary and is usually unavoidable. Even then, it would be prudent to limit the speed of vehicles in the breakdown lane, and this reduction in speed is frequently accomplished by the Police or by the road conditions at the site.

But, the practice of allowing full speed travel in the breakdown lanes of a major high-speed highway during rush hour is simply a tragedy waiting to happen. Yes, it does increase the capacity of the highway, but at the potential cost of death and injury. Wouldnít it better to bite the bullet and spend the money to widen the highway? How many tragedies will it take to stop this practice? In order to avoid the chances of killing or injuring people, isnít a slightly longer commute to or from work preferable?

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  01 November 2005 {Article 7; Undecided_01}    
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