Carpool heaven: The 110-105 interchange
Carpool heaven: The 110-105 interchange

Busy L.A. Carpool Lanes May Call for 3-Passenger Minimum

If you thought getting into the HOV lane was as easy as buying a Prius or dragging a co-worker to lunch, you might want to think again. Caltrans and local transportation authorities are reconsidering the minimum number of passengers required to drive in the carpool lanes of stretches of the 405, 105 and 210 freeways.

And yes, you can still buy that Prius. Assemblymann Richard Bloom of Santa Monica announced yesterday that Gov. Jerry Brown signed his legislation to extend the state's vehicle decal program for HOV lanes through 2025. But the possibility of expanding some of your favorite carpool lanes from two-person to three-person routes — for those without near-zero emissions vehicles — is on the table for Los Angeles County.

Caltrans is conducting a performance impact study of the idea. Going for three riders contradicts legislative efforts that would have taken us in the other direction: Twice in recent years, Gov. Jerry Brown has rejected proposals to open some L.A.-area carpool lanes at night to all passenger vehicles, even solo-driver cars. "I continue to believe that carpool lanes are especially important in Los Angeles County to reduce pollution and maximize the use of freeways," Brown stated in 2015.

Then-Assemblyman Mike Gatto, who proposed liberating those lanes at night, cited Caltrans' own research that showed carpool routes can be sorely underutilized, particularly at night. It might seem counterintuitive, then, to make already underused HOV lanes even more difficult to get into by converting them to so-called "HOV +3" lanes. But here's the logic, according to Los Angeles Metro:

"If HOV +3 speeds up the carpool lanes, encourages more carpooling and allows more cars/people to actually use the lane (called 'throughput'), that could be good for transit buses that use the lanes, as well as make things like Lyft Line and Uber Pool more appealing," Metro's Aaron Johnson wrote recently. "Since these services offer decreased fares when users combine trips with riders along their route, people might be more likely to choose a pool over riding solo — if it means access to a faster HOV lane and less travel time."

Lisa Schweitzer, a transportation expert at USC's Price School of Public Policy, says that carpool lanes have become crowded enough during rush hours that this might be the only way to offer some immediate relief.

"A carpool lane should really be a carpool lane — a reward for people who go through the trouble to participate in van pools or three-person carpools," she says. "Do I think it's going to solve congestion? No. But it will help."

The professor says three-person lanes would favor employees of larger businesses, who could use robust human resource offices to organize their trips. But she says there's no excuse for mom-and-pop businesses, which could band together to fill up home-to-work rides. "Is it really that hard to find a third?" she asks.

Metro, which manages much of the region's transportation, appears to be seriously considering the idea. According to a recent board report, the agency wants to "explore options to better manage congestion on the freeway system." The agency is trying to "determine the potential for raising the minimum occupancy from two to three people."

Los Angeles traffic has been atrocious as a result of rising employment and relatively low gas prices. It might be worth a try.

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