<strong><u>HOV Stupidity Never Dies</u></strong>

HOV Stupidity Never Dies

© David Burton 2018

HOV Lanes

     I’ve railed long and hard against the stupid, worse than useless, and totally outdated High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes that dot major highways in the United States and in Massachusetts – my home state - in particular. (Ref’s. 1 and 2) 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 Like too many government projects, outdated and useless programs never seem to die.

     In spite of the fact that HOV lanes became outdated prior to the 1980’s, back in 2005 some Massachusetts road planners and legislators were still advocating their use and proposing to add new HOV lanes in the Greater Boston area. They wanted to add a special HOV lane to connect the southbound lane of the Zakim Bridge (Rte 1) to the southbound lane of the “Big Dig” Tunnel (Route 93). Both the Zekim Bridge and the Big Dig Tunnel are traffic nightmares for morning commuters coming from the north of Boston into the city proper. Adding a HOV lane would have meant removing a normal travel lane and making today’s bad traffic problem ever worse.

     The following is a condensed and updated version of the arguments I made made against HOV lanes in 2005 (Ref. 1) and again in 2016 (Ref. 2)

     I would like the road planners and legislators in Massachusetts to tell me and driving public why there any HOV lanes in this state. 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. In fact, America has so much oil today, that it now exports more oil than it imports for the first time in 75 years! [3] There are no lines at gas pumps, and most importantly today, HOV lanes do not encourage ride sharing! Gasoline prices have certainly risen, but the number of cars on the road continue to increase. I also don’t s ee any increase in car-pooling during the commuter rush hours. I challenge anyone to name a single person who leaves their car at home in order to be able to ride in a “high speed” 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 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. During commuter rush hour, the HOV lane is unavailable to the majority of commuters, resulting in fewer lanes to carry the increased traffic load. 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 nearly 50 years ago, it would behoove our traffic planning gurus to bring their thinking and planning into the 21st century. If they don’t think conditions in 2018 are different from those in 1972, let them conduct a quick survey/study to determine the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of HOV lanes. They will find that it makes much greater sense to eliminate the HOV lanes and add them to the other non-HOV travel lanes. By so doing, they will likely find that gas consumption will be reduced, the speed of commuting traffic increased and the costs of maintaining separate HOV lanes eliminated. 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.

     Heading south from Boston on I-93 at rush hour, drivers 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 Lane”, which is noteworthy for the very few "high occupancy" vehicles actually using it. The question that needs to be repeatedly 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?

     The HOV concept was valid in the 1970s. Some apparently think that it is still valid in 2018. But it isn’t!

     Back in 2013, it was becoming obvious in parts of Canada that dedicated High Occupancy Vehicle lanes were causing trouble. Here in the U.S., it seems that we have not yet understood this fact. We still are stuck with HOV lanes and there are even some who advocate for them.

     Here’s the message that came from Edmonton, Canada in 2013. HOV lanes “actually make traffic worse. [Emphasis mine]
     “Environmentally conscious meddlers . . . still cling to the concept of HOV lanes even in the face of mounting evidence they are useless.
     “Social engineers . . . are convinced they can craftily manipulate the population into carpooling more or getting out of their cars altogether and taking ransit.
     “They permit their smug, moralistic objectives to cloud their thinking about transportation planning.
     “When you have that mentality, HOV lanes make sense to you: Inconvenience commuters who insist on driving alone, reward commuters who share a ride with others by setting up special lanes and -- presto! -- there will magically be less congestion on our roads and more ‘green’ commuting.
     “And all these glorious benefits won't even cost that much because all they'll take is a little extra paint to set the HOV and bus lanes apart from the main lanes. . . .
     “Nice theory. Too bad it doesn't work that way in real life.
     “Two California academics recently completed a study of HOV lanes in and around San Francisco, which has one of the most extensive networks of carpool/bus lanes on the continent. {They concluded that HOV lanes do} not significantly increase the throughput of people and they do not encourage carpooling. [Emphasis mine]
     “How come? Because . . . HOV lanes carry at least 400 fewer vehicles per hour than regular lanes. Where an HOV lane is created simply by designating an existing lane for carpools and buses (rather than paving an extra lane), the capacity of a road is decreased.
     “And, perhaps surprisingly, although the special lanes have fewer vehicles in them, they do not significantly shorten the commute times of drivers who get to use them. At least they don't shorten commutes enough to make it worth drivers' while to set up carpools.
     “In other words, while backers of HOV lanes will insist their goal is to reduce traffic jams, it never works that way because the lanes actually increase the volume of traffic in the regular lanes.
     “A professor emeritus of planning at the University of Ottawa, says the reason HOV lanes remain popular with self-righteous planners and politicians is that few supporters have ever bothered to do any kind of research on their impact. [Emphasis mine]
     “In a study of HOV lanes in Ontario, {the professor emeritus} wrote ‘presentations by public agencies on behalf of HOV lanes are generally promotional, frequently disingenuous, and usually very short on evidence.’ He was surprised by how few in-depth studies had ever been conducted on their ‘efficiency, effectiveness, productivity, sustainability, value-for money [or] energy reduction.’
     “Supporters of carpool and bus lanes are so convinced they are a great idea, they don't even bother to check out whether they actually achieve their goals. [Emphasis mine]
      - - -
     “Far better to add an extra lane for regular traffic where needed. But that's not politically correct . . .” (Ref. 4)

     Even before my first calls to do away with HOV lanes, there were some here in the U.S. who had come to the same conclusion. The following is excerpted from the Washington Post of 1 August 2004.

     “On a recent Friday afternoon, my wife and I were driving south from the Beltway on Interstate 95 in a long stream of slow traffic. The traffic was understandable: Everyone wanted to be somewhere else for the weekend. What was not understandable were the nearly empty high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes running parallel to the four clogged lanes.
     “The lighted sign at the entrance to the open lanes said HOV-3. It soon became apparent, however, that about the only motorists in the HOV lanes were HOV-2 cheaters and single drivers plus the occasional tractor-trailer. Without the HOV restriction, traffic might have been running freely on six lanes instead of crawling along on four.
      - - -
     ”In principle HOV ought to work, but in reality it hasn't. HOV has been in use for about 20 years, and commuters still have not rushed to fill the empty space, despite rising fuel prices. From my observation, most vehicles in HOV lanes have one occupant, especially during the high-demand rush hours.
     “The HOV restriction is more destructive than productive. On I-95 south of the Beltway, the segregated HOV lanes are so underutilized during rush hours that they might as well not exist, and the remaining lane space is inadequate to meet the demand.
      - - -
     “The function of a highway is to move traffic. The underused HOV lanes degrade the performance of the highway. Abolishing the HOV restriction would provide lane space to allow the highways to run more freely. The highways would be more egalitarian, and everyone would get home sooner.
      - - -
     “The HOV-2 lanes on I-270 cost about $90 million. The segregated HOV-3 lanes on I-95 south of the Beltway cost several times that. What the taxpayers are getting for that investment is inconsistent with the cost.
     “HOV is a failed concept. It deserves to be discarded.” [Emphasis mine] (Ref. 5)

     Here in Massachusetts, it was clear to some as far back as 2007 – just two years after they were opened - that the state’s much heralded HOV lanes leading into and out of Boston from the north and south were abject failures.

     “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 of the Big Dig tunnel system, 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, given that the adjacent Interstate 93, the highway they are supposed to relieve, is rarely clogged by traffic in that area. The cost for these three miles of open pavement: an estimated $250 million. {Heaven knows what the maintenance costs of the HOV lanes that have accrued since then!}
     “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.
      - - -
     “The high-occupancy vehicle lanes were conceived nearly two decades ago {circa 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] {What this really means is that the HOV lanes were built in order to obtain federal highway funding and not for any meaningful need!}
      - - -
     “Local officials did not decide to build the lanes on their own. Like most communities, Boston built them to comply with state and federal air quality standards.  . . .
     “The lanes also helped the Big Dig secure federal antigridlock money - part of the package of federal aid that amounted to $8.549 billion for the road system.  . . .” (Ref. 6)

     The bureaucrats in our federal and state governments here in the United States continue to persist in imposing a solution to a problem that existed nearly 50 years ago and which has long since disappeared. It has been apparent to the driving public that the HOV lanes are simply creating problems, not solving them. A little common sense would have shown the transportation planners and highway maintainers that it made much greater sense to take the HOV lanes and add them to the other non-HOV travel lanes. In so doing, they would have reduced gasoline consumption, reduced traffic congestion, reduced pollution, reduced driver frustration and eliminated the costs of maintaining separate HOV lanes.

     Years ago, it was obvious to me and to many thousands of motorists inconvenienced by the HOV lanes that these impediments to efficient traffic management needed to go and I urged that Massachusetts do away with its obsolete and ineffective HOV lanes. Still, in 2018, the HOV lanes and all their attendant problems remain – a testament to ineffective, obsolete and inefficient government. The way things now stand, these useless HOV lanes will outlive us all!


  1. Outdated and thoughtless traffic planning, David Burton Sonofeliyahu.com; Article 07, 1 November 2005.
  2. Useless HOV Lanes Will Outlive Us All, David Burton Sonofeliyahu.com; Article 258, 21 July 2016.
  3. The U.S. Just Became a Net Oil Exporter for the First Time in 75 Years, Javier Blas, Bloomberg, 7 December 2018.
  5. HOV: Never Worked, Won't Work. Can't We Get Rid of It?, Virgil H. Soule, Washington Post, Page B08,
    1 August 2004.
  6. The roads less traveled Built to ease traffic, HOV lanes are largely unused, Noah Bierman, boston.com,
    28 October 2007.


  20 December 2018 {Article 345; Undecided_59}    
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