Benjamin Dachis is a senior policy analyst at the C.D. Howe Institute.
Love ’em or hate ’em, carpool lanes on Toronto highways look here to stay – having gained the endorsement of the Premier of Ontario. Tolling these carpool lanes is the way to go.
The Pan Am Games set the stage. The province installed 235 kilometres of temporary carpool lanes across the Greater Toronto Area. The province required that vehicles have three occupants to access them during July. For most of August, vehicles must have two occupants to access the lanes.
The Pan Am lanes were always billed as temporary. But the province has had long-standing plans to build carpool lanes across the region. The province has permanent carpool lanes on highways in Mississauga, Halton Region and north Toronto. The province is currently building permanent carpool lanes, also called high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes, on other highways.
Many Toronto drivers have seen first-hand the problems with HOV lanes. They are often underused during rush hour. That leaves more single-occupant vehicles in general purpose lanes. The result is that HOV lanes reduce overall highway capacity and worsen congestion.
HOV lanes benefit a handful of drivers who are in carpools. Despite stories of Uber offering carpool matching, many carpoolers would have driven together anyway. That makes HOV lanes ineffective at changing driving patterns and cutting congestion.
But there’s a better way and it is coming to Ontario. The province promised in its 2013 budget that it will open some carpool lanes to single-occupant vehicles willing to pay a toll. These are called high occupancy toll (HOT) lanes. On July 22, Premier Kathleen Wynne reiterated her commitment to HOT lanes.
The price to access a HOT lane would vary based on demand. Prices would be low at night and high during rush hour. The price would be set to ensure that the lane is congestion-free. Prices could be posted on road signs to show the cost of a trip before drivers enter. Drivers could decide if the potential time savings are worth the toll.
HOT lanes also provide free access to carpooling drivers and buses. HOT lanes benefit drivers not in the toll lane by increasing total highway capacity. Research shows that the benefit to drivers of time saved is almost $2,000 per driver per year.
How would the HOT lanes work? There would be no need for toll booths. Solo drivers would pay electronically, through either a transponder or licence-plate-recognizing photos. Modern HOT lanes are separated from general purpose lanes by special pavement striping. That makes them easy to install.
Carpoolers would avoid tolls by registering their vehicle as a potential carpool. Carpoolers would get a transponder that alerts authorities not to charge them. When drivers aren’t in a carpool, they would need to turn off the carpool mode on their transponder. That’s what drivers on the Minneapolis HOT lane do. Georgia’s HOT lane drivers have an app that lets them switch on and off whether they signalling that they are driving a carpool vehicle. Traffic police need only look at vehicles with transponders set to carpool mode. Everyone else pays, making enforcement of the carpooling rules easy.
The province has not committed to where HOT lanes will be. However, the Pan Am HOV lanes on highways would form a natural region-wide HOT lane network. Drivers from Burlington to downtown Toronto to Durham Region would have access to congestion-free travel.
The province should work together with the City of Toronto to build a comprehensive network. The province owns 400-series highways but Toronto owns the Gardiner Expressway and the Don Valley Parkway. Toronto already has the power to levy road tolls.
HOT lanes are common across the United States, in San Diego, Seattle, Miami and many more in between. They’ve worked well. Like what’s under consideration here, Minneapolis converted its HOV lanes into HOT lanes. A study there found that the economic benefits of doing so were more than double the operating and capital costs.
The Pan Am HOV lane experiment has shown the upsides and the downsides of traditional HOV lanes. The province is heading in the right direction with plans to turn them into HOT lanes.
Benjamin Dachis is a Senior Policy Analyst at the C.D. Howe Institute and author of “Congestive Traffic Failure: The Case for High-Occupancy and Express Toll Lanes in Canadian Cities”.
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