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Pan Am’s HOV lanes spur ‘huge growth’ in ride-sharing

With the Toronto 2015 Pan Am & Parapan Am Games set to begin in less than two weeks, HOV lane restrictions came into effect causing some confusion with drivers being fined and losing points foe the infraction.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Spurred by the Pan Am Games and facilitated by new technology, ride-sharing is having a moment in Toronto – and carpooling advocates are hoping the habit will stick after the athletes have left town.

With the competition in full swing – including events in 19 disciplines Tuesday at venues across the region – there are few signs of the predicted traffic apocalypse. Although the usual summer drop in traffic volume is likely helping, some people are clearly choosing to change their commuting behaviour.

Metrolinx, the regional transit agency, says its service for matching carpoolers is showing huge growth since last month, when 235 kilometres of high-occupancy vehicle lanes were put in place for the games. And companies Blancride and UberPool, which match paying riders with drivers, are also growing quickly.

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Although the games-related HOV lanes are due to disappear next month, the region has other carpool lanes for people who have become accustomed to them. And their popularity may help convince politicians that such lanes have value – despite drivers complaining that they are empty too much of the time.

Jarrett Walker, an Oregon-based transportation consultant and the author of Human Transit, says complaints about HOV lanes seeming empty reveal a misunderstanding of how they function: They work precisely because vehicles can move quickly in them.

"Lanes that are immobilized because they are packed with single-occupant cars, many of which have lots of empty spaces, are simply not among the solutions," he said in a phone interview. "The solutions that do move … inevitably involve fewer vehicles with more people in them – and few enough vehicles that the vehicles themselves do not generate congestion."

Despite calls to retain the games-related HOV lanes, the Ontario Ministry of Transportation has ruled out keeping them when the events are over. But in the meantime the lanes seem to have helped prompt a surge of interest in carpooling, even for people whose route doesn't take in an HOV lane.

Eugene Michasiw took UberPool on Monday morning for his commute from Toronto's Annex neighbourhood to Queen and Spadina. It's a short enough trip that he usually walks or bikes, but he chose to carpool because of a free ride offer for first-timers.

"It was a little bit of a different experience, but it was fine. Had a good chat on the way down," the 23-year-old said Tuesday.

Specific UberPool ridership numbers for Tuesday morning were not available, but a spokeswoman said the company had received a "tremendous" response.

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Metrolinx spokeswoman Anne Marie Aikins said the agency did a pre-games promotion for its carpooling service and picked up 1,500 users in June, up about 15 per cent. In the first 11 days of the temporary HOV lanes, they signed up another 900.

"I think with the HOV lanes it did encourage people to look for other ways," she said. "Sometimes we do need a bit of a push, and that was a bit of a push for people."

Blancride, which is currently waiving its fee for matching riders with drivers as it builds a presence in Toronto, said Tuesday that it had signed up 571 new users since the HOV lanes appeared, up almost 17 per cent.

"I certainly hope this is a moment for carpooling," said Justin Kozuch, head of marketing for the company. "I'm also really hoping this is more of a long-lasting trend. It's great to see that carpooling is finally becoming part of that conversation."

The numbers are not a game-changer in a city the size of Toronto. But with polls showing that people view traffic as one of the biggest problems facing the city, they suggest carpooling and dedicated lanes have a future here.

Mr. Walker says dedicated lanes succeed best in cities so crowded that a broad consensus emerges: There is no other way to move all the people.

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"This isn't a culture war. This isn't even about energy and sustainability. This is about how to make people fit in the city," he said. "If you drive a car into Toronto … you are claiming a whole lot more expensive real estate."

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