Monday, September 18, 2006

Why is having SOV hybrids on HOV lanes a bad idea

For a lot of people, their reason for supporting SOV hybrid cars on HOV lanes is simple: HOV lane is not crowded, hybrid cars are good for the environment and use less gas, then awarding the use of HOV lane provides an incentive to purchase more hybrid cars.

The reality is that allowing SOV hybrid on carpool lanes, not only defeating the purpose of carpool lanes, but is also a very regressive way to promote sustainable transportation.

Caltrans recently reported that the HOV lanes in the state are more crowded since last year, when DMV began distributing HOV access stickers to hybrid cars. Although other reasons, like higher employment rate, may have also contributed to the crowded lanes, the impacts from SOV hybrids can be significant and cannot be overlooked. Carpool lanes in Virginia are also clogged as a result of allowing SOV hybrids into HOV lanes.

When the carpool lane is clogged, the travel time savings by carpooling or taking express buses diminish and commuters are more likely to drive alone. The HOV lanes will then fail to meet their goal: deliver a higher people throughput than SOV lanes.

Many people that have purchased a hybrid recently cited access to HOV lanes is one of the reasons for buying one. Basically for an $8 registration fee to the DMV, they will get an unlimited use HOV "pass." Unlike those who take the time and effort to form a carpool, hybrid drivers don't have to change any commuting behaviors. All they have to do is to go to a Toyota or a Honda dealer and get on the waiting list to buy a car.

Obviously there is an economic value for the buyer to drive on HOV lanes without having to carpool. Whatever that economic value is, the state isn't getting any of it with a nominal $8 registration fee. On the other hand, hybrid car makers/dealers are selling these vehicles at a premium without having to spend their money to promote them. The car makers/dealers are profiting at the public's expense.

Allowing SOV hybrids on HOV lanes is also regressive and makes these lanes the ultimate "Lexus lanes." Unlike high occupancy toll (HOT) lane system that allows everyone to pay a much lower one time fee to use the lanes, drivers must make a high upfront payment to either purchase or finance a hybrid car in order to receive unlimited access on HOV lanes. Such an high upfront cost to obtain a hybrid is simply too expensive for low income folks who could only afford a used non-hybrid car.

Unfortunately, once this perk is given away, it is hard to take it back with a growing "constituency" of hybrid owners. The VTA General Manager Michael Burns is one of them. He reportedly drives a VTA-issued Toyota Prius with HOV stickers.