As Number of Carpool Riders Fall, Why Is L.A. Doubling Down on New Lanes?

In 1990, when the HOV system looked as it did on the left, 15.5% of commuters carpooled.  The blue lines on the right are the current HOV system, but barely 11% carpool today.  Image: Metro 2009 Long Range Transportation Plan
In 1980, when the HOV system looked as it did on the left, 15% of commuters in Los Angeles County carpooled. The blue lines on the right are the current HOV system, but barely 11% carpool today. Image: Metro 2009 Long Range Transportation Plan

Los Angeles County has one of the most extensive and far-reaching carpool lane networks in the country.  And it’s still growing.  Between 1997 and 2010, the County added 244 lane miles of HOV lanes bringing the total system to 513 lane miles.  Pretty much every highway expansion project in the county is an HOV project as the greenwashing the claim that these projects take cars off the road tends to blunt criticism.

Today, that construction trend continues.  The largest stimulus project, both in scope of project and cost to taxpayers, in the country is the I-405 widening project, which is heralded by Metro as a chance to connect several of its other carpool projects.  It’s going to be worth it, they assure the public, especially those that have to deal with the construction impacts in their daily lives.

Metro is pretty proud of it’s carpool expansion.  They have an entire webpage dedicated to explaining the history of the Southern California’s carpools, and proudly boast

Today, the Los Angeles County HOV system is carrying more people than any other HOV system in the United States, and is one of the few HOV systems in the country that has been able to sustain a growth in carpools.

There’s just one rub.  After the billions of dollars spent building and converting carpool lanes, including those funds being sunk into projects such as the 405 widening right now, that statement is false. 

Los Angeles County has seen a decrease in total carpools, even as construction and conversion have reached a fever pitch.  Based on census data, 209,685 people in L.A. County commuted via carpool in 2000.  Despite population growth and a jump in the number of HOV lanes available, that number dropped to 194,228 in the 2009 update.

Granted the change is close to being within the margin of error, but for Metro this should create some serious policy questions.  While Metro is looking for ways to objectively evaluate the value of the HOV projects, when the percentage of people using expanded facilities is falling, 14.7% of commuters carpooled in 2000 versus 11.1% in 2009, the questions should be more pointed.  In other words, the question shouldn’t be, “how much bang are we getting for our buck” but closer to “Is building HOV lanes a good use of public funds?”  and “Do these lanes reduce the number of cars on the road or just move multi-passenger vehicles out of the regular lanes opening space for more single-passenger vehicles?”

Another question should be, “If adding all those HOV lanes isn’t enough to get more people into carpools, how can Metro encourage more people to carpool instead of driving solo?”

There’s no easy answers.  One hint as to the best path for Metro would be to look at what was happening when carpooling was at its zenith, both nationwide and locally.  In the 1970’s, more Americans chose carpooling than at any other point.  Of course, oil prices and gasoline prices were high, but carpooling also got a major boost viathe active cooperation of large employers such as Chevron and Xerox.  In the modern world, carpool minded companies could also offer a “cash-out” benefit to employees who save them the cost of a car parking space while choosing to carpool.

Streetsblog would also like to note that 2ooo was selected as the base year for our comparison because it was the most recent year with a full census available.  Going back to previous census actually paints a worse picture.  In 1990, before federal funds were made available for HOV projects and their were only two HOV lanes in the county, 15.5% of commuters chose to carpool which is the highest number on record.

  • roadblock

    I’d like to imagine that one day, when people finally form the political will, those car pool lanes could be re-purposed as space for rail transit. Every freeway in Los Angeles should have a rail line a la the greenline/105 fwy config. Imagine that.

  • patrick

    I suspect this is part of a plan to eventually re-purpose all carpool lanes into toll lanes that will do nothing to encourage cleaner, less crowded transit, but will raise revenue for the State and County.

  • roadblock

    @patrick fine. we need toll lanes and we need more money for the state and county. if people are going to drive, make them pay for it.

  • It Gets Worse…

    “As Number of Carpool Riders Fall, Why Is L.A. Doubleing Down on New Lanes?”

    Answer: to build a network of interconnecting High-Occupancy Toll (HOT) “Lexus Lanes” lanes.

    Metro is explicitly promoting the idea of HOT Lexus Lanes to increase revenue, even though the number of carpools will *FALL* because you’ll have to install a transponder just to use these lanes in the future. No transponder, get a ticket.

    And getting rid of those pesky carpoolers magically opens more capacity for toll-paying customers!

    The “ExpressLanes” project on the 110/10 Freeways is the prototype for this, but Metro’s own board agenda materials reveal that it envisions converting as many as possible of LA County’s HOV lanes to HOT Lexus Lanes.

    Even just as non-tolled HOV lanes, a significant portion of the vehicles in the HOV “carpool” lanes are taxis with one passenger.

    See “LOS ANGELES COUNTY 2015 HOV TO HOT CONVERSION FEASIBILITY STUDY” for a preview of upcoming attractions…
    http://www.metro.net/board/Items/2010/11_november/20101117AHCPItem1.pdf

    Remember, this isn’t converting mixed-flow lanes to toll, but converting carpool lanes to toll.

  • I suspect some of the recent decrease has to do with the generally bad economy, which tends to depress all forms of transportation.

    That said, you’d hope that would only explain *slower growth* than anticipated, given how many more HOV lanes have been added. The outright decline is disheartening.

    It’d be interesting to compare the amount of HOV lanes added in LA County versus the number of general highway lanes added over the same time.

  • Matt

    The NY Times had an article a few days ago about how carpooling has tanked. I believe it has fallen less here in Los Angeles than other places. Nevertheless, the stats are disappointing. I do think there are some other factors not considered such as busses use of the lanes and things like Flyaway, which would be much less attractive without the lanes.

    Overall, I think allowing some carpool lanes to allow toll payers is a good thing as long as the money generated is used to support mass transit. We either have to raise bus and rail fares dramatically or come up with other avenues of financial support for the system. As we have seen over the last few years, there is no free lunch any longer.

  • roadblock

    @Matt yes, the money should go to mass transit, but you can already hear the crying about car money funding car projects….

    Also I think the car pooling thing is a pipe dream. too difficult to coordinate pick up drop off and all that bullshit.

    Mass transit is the only way and for now I’m all for seeing the freeway space carved up for the dream then re-purposed even if it’s for wealthy people in toll lanes. the more it pushes people into abandoning cars the better. someday those freeways will have rail lines.. give it a few more centuries.

  • Erik G.

    The LA Metro produced map above has an error:

    In 1980 the El Monte Busway aling Interstate 10 (which have slowly but surely been surrendered to the private automobile) was ONLY OPEN to HOV 3+ during peak hours and weekends.

    This was of course before the whole (Current US Secretary of Labor) Hilda Solis-debacle of 1999 (SB 63):

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/El_Monte_Busway#Busway_history

  • Erik G.

    @It Gets Worse…

    Spot on summary of what is going to happen.

    Funny isn’t it that in most other jurisdictions where HOT is being implemented, the Motorcyclists, HOV 2+ or HOV 3+ users DO NOT NEED A TRANSPONDER:

    See Washington State’s SR 167 HOT for example:

    http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/Tolling/SR167HotLanes/userguide.htm

  • Erik G.

    @Matt:

    The one hope for the HOT/HOV lane system would be a system of Express buses in greater Los Angeles. But apart from Silver Li(n)e, Silver Streak, FlyAway, SMBBB10 (which uses a portion of Interstate 10 that does not now have nor is slated to get an HOV/HOT lane) or the Over-the-Road buses from Santa Clarita and Antelope Valley…

    …such a system has not been put in place, even in corridors where it might work (like SR 60 or I-605)

  • Statsdude

    Damien, there are other indicators not mentioned in your article, including
    – Completion of the Red Line into North Hollywood
    – Construction of the Gold Line
    – The really big recession we are in right now.
    Each of these could impact carpools disproportionally to single occupancy vehicles (SOV). I don’t have the data, but alternative explanations are possible.

    Second – Why is funding going to carpool lanes? Because that is where the money is. Various regulations limit the funding opportunities available.

    Now if we can only double or triple the amount of federal money going to bike improvements…

  • tsdude

    Damien, there are other indicators not mentioned in your article, including
    – Completion of the Red Line into North Hollywood
    – Construction of the Gold Line
    – The really big recession we are in right now.
    Each of these could impact carpools disproportionally to single occupancy vehicles (SOV). I don’t have the data, but alternative explanations are possible.
    ———-

    Sure, there are plenty of options available.

    But, the total percent of people in SOV’s is basically unchanged (within the margin for error) over the same time. So if people are hopping out of their carpool to get in to transit or on a bike, that’s great. But if that’s the case, it doesn’t argue FOR projects such as the I 405 widening.

  • Derek

    The problem with carpool lanes is the same problem with regular lanes: by pricing them below the market equilibrium price, they only have a limited capability to eliminate traffic congestion, if you understand how supply and demand works.

    And therein lies the market-based solution: variable tolls that eliminate congestion by reducing demand to the current level of supply.

  • Sigh! Why can’t we have 513 track miles of Metro Rail instead. Our 79 miles of Metro Rail has more riders than LA County carpoolers! Oh well, thank goodness I have a motorcycle as my secondary form of transportation after Metro; those HOV lanes are at least somewhat useful to me.

  • Eric B

    Like Statsdude says, this isn’t necessarily a clear case. There are many confounding factors that have potentially greater effects than infrastructure alone: state of the economy, energy prices, demographic changes, industry changes.

    Likewise, these stats are people who carpool “most of the time,” not a direct measurement of the effectiveness of any given HOV lane. For example, I used to carpool (until my colleague moved) about half the time, but our route did not have an HOV lane. Our decision to carpool or not had little to do with the infrastructure present and everything to do with cost and fuel savings. I can say that if an HOV lane were present, it would affect my travel choices.

    As an aside, Streetsblog doesn’t have to hate everything car-related just because it is powered by petroleum. The analysis needs to get beyond “cars bad, everything else good” and delve into making the transportation system as a whole more efficient. Carpool lanes done well make travel more predictable within an existing road network. Predictability is generally even more important than total travel time (after all, just ask any bus rider) and has real economic value.

    This comes at a cost, and it is absolutely legitimate to question whether the benefits of a particular project (e.g. I-405) are worth those costs (and opportunity costs–what else could have been funded with that money). But it is extraordinarily out of touch for the livable streets community to hate on every petroleum-based transportation project just for the sake of it. I walk first, bike second, take transit third, carpool fourth, and drive solo as a last resort. I expect to pay for the costs of my choices, but don’t expect to be handicapped out of spite by people I mostly agree with. Rebalancing transportation doesn’t mean killing automotive travel before serious alternatives are available. It means prioritizing scarce transportation resources toward the most efficient modes. There is a difference there–one argument is winnable, the other is not.

    The treatment of toll lanes (particularly by commenters) is disheartening. Here we are acknowledging that the time savings of driving have economic value and pricing options accordingly. This is a truly golden opportunity for broader transportation reform, but here we are b*$&%ing about Lexus Lanes.

    As far as your numbers Damien, I’ve seen similar “analyses” used to question expensive transit projects in a context of declining ridership. Please, please, please hold yourself to a higher standard than O’Toole and Cox. Question the assumptions inherent in your data and make sure the data actually supports your conclusion.

  • Yuri

    @EricB,

    I understand what you are saying but Damien’s central point that the percent of self-reported carpool commuters is less than in 1990 even though the carpool lanes have increased by at least 10 times is surprising to me. Can you imagine the flak Metro would get if the percent of self-reported rail transit commuters was less today than in 1990? (I haven’t looked at the numbers.) There is a definite double standard for highway and transit projects. Transit projects are frequently held to the higher “must pay for itself”.

    I agree that charging tolls is a good trend. In fact I think we should start calling them tollways because the system is subsidized by everyone and was never really “free” in the first place.

  • Bob Davis

    Don’t know how it is elsewhere, but when my wife and I have traveled on I-210 during busy times, it seems like the HOV lane doesn’t travel much faster than the other lanes. Also, maneuvering in and out is a hassle unless one is going all the way to the end of the lane. As far as converting HOV lane to rail service, one of the complaints about the Gold Line is the noise and pollution making the stations in the freeway median unpleasant places to wait for a train. I’ve seen comments about the Harbor Freeway Busway that criticize the “no-man’s-land” one must cross to get to a station.

  • Jason Herring

    @roadblock – I’ve often said I’d never support another mile of freeway in LA without a light rail line down the center of it. A dream would be to convert the HOV lanes to light rail – ROW problems solved!

    @ Bob Davis – the HOV lanes sometimes pay off – on the 405 in South Bay and OC it *can* be good, but sometimes not so much. As for getting to ‘no man’s land’ – well, that’s pretty easy to fix with some aesthetic improvements. A park-and-ride and a bike-and-ride at every light rail station (monitored w/ security) would go a long way towards making mass transit work for more people in spread-out LA.

    I get disgusted with the thought of the HOV lanes converted to HOT lanes – it is just another small measure of the stratification of our society based on income. While coordinating carpools is difficult, a regular rail service along those routes would offer much more flexibility of schedule.

  • roadblock

    you know they could simply run light rail down the HOV lanes and have the trains dip underground to stations to avoid the barron freewayscape.

  • Derek

    I wouldn’t worry about HOT lanes and the poor. Research shows the poor prefer them even more than the rich! “Support [for HOT lanes] is high across all income groups, with the lowest income group expressing stronger support than the highest income group (80% vs. 70%).” http://preview.tinyurl.com/9whrnc

    It’s because the alternative is usually sales taxes which are paid disproportionately by the poor, and “As a group low-income residents, on average, pay more out-of-pocket with sales taxes” for freeways than with tolls. http://preview.tinyurl.com/7s3kak

    So the class warfare argument against HOT lanes is bunk.

  • LAofAnaheim

    Anybody think the building of HOV lanes is due to the following?

    1) AAA required that Measure R include 20% for road capacity improvements (initially Measure R was written with 15%) so that AAA would endorse Measure R. Well, Metro/Los Angeles wants to focus on more public transit but less single-passenger freeway expansions. It’s been told the last freeway to built in Los Angeles was the I-105. If Los Angeles has to spend 20% on road capacity, then an HOV lane is more beneficial than another auxiliary lane.

    2) A hidden scheme to get more bus rapid transit on freeways? Imagine if the I-10 west of downtown had a carpool lane…then imagine the speed on the Big Blue Bus 10!!!

  • I’ve taken bus and rail lines on the freeway, and they suck. At least, the way they are done in LA sucks. Not just the stations, but the entire area around them is typically ugly, unsafe for pedestrians, and far away from useful amenities and businesses.

  • roadblock

    @Josef I agree they do suck, but they sure are used. I used to do redline – blueline – greenline to work and the greenline seemed to be consistently as packed as the other lines. I dont see why they couldnt design a more friendly freeway station model…

  • Joe

    The stations on the freeways may suck, but some of the bus lines (the one on the 110-S out of downtown in particular) are fantastic, because they go FAST. I love breezing at 60mph past stopped traffic.

    Personally, I’m for any project which gets traffic moving; in particular, any project which gets transit moving. Buses should not be stopped in traffic, period. If that means that doctors in Lexuses get to go fast while the middle class who won’t take transit gets stuck in traffic, I can live with that.

  • @LAofAnaheim

    BBB #10 was the legacy of I-10 “diamond lane” project from the 1980s. We converted 2 lanes on I-10 between Downtown LA and Santa Monica to HOV and BBB started #10 as a result. The “diamond lane” proved extremely unpopular and was removed only a few month after it started. But BBB #10 survived (unlike most of the Metro bus routes that used the “diamond lane”).

  • Daniel

    If you really believe that use of carpool lanes in LA county has decreased, you don’t drive on many Southern California freeways. In fact, many of the LA county HOV lanes are so crowded during rush hour, with carpoolers and electric / hybrid vehicles, that the average speed advantage of HOV lanes over the rest of the freeway lanes has decreased significantly according to a detailed MTA report. Some HOV-2 lanes may eventually need to be converted to HOV-3 (3 passenger) lanes, like already exists on the El Monte Busway. Two LA HOV lanes (I-110 and I-10) will be converted next year to HOV/HOT lanes with a large federal grant. Transportation user fees from HOT lane users can be used for many types of transportation improvement, including extending rail lines, buses, bike lanes, more HOV lanes, etc.

  • Census data goes up and down, but one thing remains constant: the number of vehicles and the number of vehicle miles traveled are both expected to increase to unsustainable levels in the future. There are too many cars and not enough roadways to handle them all. The more immediate probable cause of the drop in carpooling is the stubborn recession. If people aren’t working, they’re not carpooling to a job. The recession is not a permanent phenomenon. As critical gaps in the carpool lane network are filled (the I-405 project is one example of this), carpooling, vanpooling and public transit should grow as well, particularly with the continuing escalation of gasoline prices. The 405 freeway carpool lane project fills the last gap in the entire I-405 freeway HOV system. Completing it is essential to improve mobility not just for the I-405, but the entire region’s freeway network. The extra lane of traffic will in fact improve mobility on the 10-mile portion of the northbound I-405 by making all of the lanes of traffic flow more efficiently, whether you use the carpool lane or not. We’re expanding carpool lanes so that we can sustain growth in alternative commute modes. Ride sharers save an average of 22 minutes of time to work through access to carpool lanes. L.A. has the most utilized HOV lane network in the country for one simple reason: it’s a highly effective congestion mitigation strategy. It is not the only strategy Metro and other regional transportation agencies are pursuing. L.A. County voters passed Measure R because they wanted traffic relief for freeways AND public transit. We’re making improvements to both at the same time. If carpool lanes weren’t a good use of public funds, why would L.A. county voters and the federal government continually choose to fund them? Metro is working with employers to encourage carpooling, vanpooling and public transit. The agency offers a suite of online ride matching services, incentives and transit pass programs. Our annual pass program has almost 600 employers enrolled, and about 13,000 employees are now using the agency’s annual transit passes to get to work. Metro’s Vanpool program now has 1,000 vanpools, making it the fastest growing vanpool program in the country. No one strategy is going to solve all of our transportation problems in L.A. County. We must take a multi-pronged approach to traffic relief.

  • Yuri

    @Daniel, to clarify, we’re discussing carpool commuters, which is a subset of carpool lane users. Maybe increasing the minimum to HOV-3 or HOV-4 and eliminating the hybrid/electric vehicle exemption would increase the number of carpool commuters. Metro should try this before widening a freeway for another carpool lane.

  • The carpool lane on 405 north thru the pass was absolutely needed. But it didn’t have to cost $1 billion to build it.

    Metro should have spent a few thousand bucks on paint and bollards, and re-painted the lanes to add a carpool lane and take away a non-carpool lane.

    This would have increased freeway capacity by almost as much (carpools are 2, 3 or more times as efficient as 1 person cars), while saving $1 billion dollars.

    The billion bucks could have paided for a two-track light rail tunnel under the pass, connecting to the Orange Line buses and the future Subway in Westwood, and providing a station at UCLA as well (Actually, it would cost about $2 billion for this, but there is already some money in the budget from Measure R)

    Metro needs to admit that it didn’t build carpool lanes on 405. It widened 405 to prevent taking away a “free” lane from 1 person occupancy cars.

  • Marcotico

    Yuri, Putting on my academic hat, maybe the problem is that the census asks your typical mode of commuting. So the average number of carpool users is the same or more, but the number of self selected carpool commuters (this is my standard way of getting to work) is down.

  • Yuri

    I ran across this factoid from the Center for Transportation Excellence (http://www.cfte.org/factoids/default.asp):

    “From 1985 to 2001, the percentage of people driving to work alone increased by 5.8% to represent 78.2% of all means of commuting. In the same time period, carpooling declined by 4.4%, public transportation by 0.4% and the percentage of people working at home declined by 0.2%.”

    So, I guess this decline in commuter carpooling is also a nationwide trend. This is probably old news to experts, but I had no idea.

    I like this factoid because it neatly sums up the long term impact of these transportation decisions:

    “In Los Angeles, .80 of every $1.00 spent on public transport gets recirculated in the region, translating into $3.80 in goods and services. Conversely, .85 of every $1.00 spent on gas leaves the region.”

  • Bob Davis

    Not only is employment down, but the percentage of employees who work at large work locations with regular hours is probably down even further. It’s a lot easier to set up car pools (and van pools) if you have a big employment center that increases the odds of finding several people who live in the same area, and who live far enough away to make ride sharing practical. The time between when the driver leaves home and when the last passenger gets on board has to be fairly small in relation to the time from the last pickup to the workplace. Another factor is that large companies have the resources to have one or more people assigned to administering the ride share program. If the employees have to organize these pools themselves, it’s less likely to happen. The company I worked for before I retired had an active van pool program; during the workday, the vans that needed maintenance could be worked on in the company garage while most of the company trucks were out on assignments, and the maintenance would be pro-rated to the users of the program.

  • HOV lanes do not work. How many people live by their coworkers? Or even by people who work in the same area? It makes no sense in our changing economy.  HOV are remnants of political capital that politicians and local leaders like to throw around.  It an old solution that does not to apply to the way we work.  I don’t know anyone who carpools?  Or anyone that would even consider car pooling during rush hour.  It not practical.  Few people go out of their way to carpool.  You either happen to be traveling with a friend or family member, and you take advantage of the lane. Otherwise…the morning rush hour and evening rush is would be better off opening the lane to all users.

  • cph

    Actually quite a few of the I-10 expresses survived, but are now LADOT routes.

    #439 (to LAX) is the last still operated by Metro….at least until the Expo line opens….

  • JeffersonQwerty

    With regard to the new express lanes on the 110 freeway, I think two things have occurred:

    1) Local government has absolutely no idea how to fix the horrible traffic situation in the county, and are doing what all government entities are prone to do, pick a program that appears on the surface to be beneficial, even if they know it will ultimately cost more than it’s worth.

    2) Our illustrious mayor is actually boasting that his city has succeeded in getting $210 million of federal taxpayer money (during a recession) to create a toll lane that will extend HOV access to people who can afford an extra $100 a week to get to and from downtown LA. And he has the nerve to say that it is all about improving traffic.

    I see it as nothing more than a thinly disguised scheme to eventually introduce toll roads everywhere as a means to raise revenue. LA city government is starving right now because of terrible mismanagement over the years. If you can’t fix the traffic situation, then just charge people to use the freeways. It makes total sense.

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