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High-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes let solo drivers pay their way into less busy carpool lanes, costing about $180 for the three months.J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

If time is money, as the adage goes, how much is it worth?

It's a complicated question with no universal answer. The value people put on their time depends on age, competing demands on their calendar, even on whether they are wage-earners or salaried.

Diving into this murky psychology is the Ontario government, which offered the public a chance to pay for access to the carpool lanes on a stretch of the Queen Elizabeth Way. The promise is a faster commute – for a price – and this week people will start to learn if they got one of the coveted permits.

The pilot project will help test the market for a broader provincial shift toward this sort of pay-for-access driving. Early indications are very positive, with demand for the first batch of permits outstripping supply by about seven to one. But it remains to be seen if, once the early buzz dies, people keep paying to buy time, something even many comfortably well-off can seem reluctant to do.

"Even in a sample of 900 millionaires, just under half say they use money to change the way they spend their time," said Ashley Whillans, a PhD candidate in social psychology at the University of British Columbia who studies the relationship between time, money and happiness. "There's a lot of reasons for this, but one reason is that people always think they'll have more time in the future."

What's an hour worth?

For anyone who has been part of a traffic jam and thought they'd do anything to get moving, the idea of cash-for-access driving may seem inspired. High-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes offer the chance for solo drivers to pay their way into carpool lanes, which are typically less busy.

Critics have dubbed them Lexus lanes, saying that they offer an unfair advantage to wealthier drivers. But others counter with research showing that drivers at all income levels tend to use them. And supporters say they are a more efficient way to use carpool lanes.

At their most sophisticated, HOT lanes use variable pricing that adjusts according to congestion, with the goal to keep traffic moving at a certain speed. The provincial pilot is lower-tech – a simple permit that allows three months unlimited access.

There will be 500 issued at first, with as many as 1,000 possible in the future.

The price is $180 for the three months, which works out to about $2.75 per weekday, with the promise of drivers saving up to 10 minutes each way. If provincial projections hold true, this would mean motorists paying about $8.25 for each hour of driving they eliminate.

This is much less than the $20 to $30 per hour of a person's time often used by transportation planners when trying to justify a new project. If the QEW permit seems like a bargain, there are around 3,500 applicants who might agree with you, a level of demand that suggests the price was set too low.

Indeed, an internal government projection shows that they could have charged $150 per month – equivalent to about $20 per hour of time saved – and still had more applicants than the available number of permits. Their assessment concluded that 1,800 to 2,400 people would apply for the pass at that higher rate, compared to a projected 2,500 to 3,300 applicants at $60 per month.

"We want people to experience what it's like to use a high-occupancy toll lane," Jamie Austin, the provincial Ministry of Transportation official who is heading the project, said.

"We want to ensure that it's fair for commuters out there and it's not just for the select few that are willing to pay the most. It's not an auction approach. By a draw we are giving equal opportunity for all commuters."

And looked at another way, the permits are priced too dearly. They value the time of these drivers half again as high as the cost-per-hour saved with an offer allowing TTC riders to use GO within the city core. That deal pegged the value of the transit riders' time at only $5.50 per hour, and attracted few customers even at that low rate.

Mr. Austin acknowledged the difficulty in finding the right price. He said that they didn't have any straight comparisons and looked at HOT lanes in other jurisdictions, considered the price of the Highway 407 toll route and factored in transit costs.

Change is hard

Commuting patterns can be difficult to break.

Researchers say that one of the few times it's possible to convince people to change how they get to work is when they change jobs or change homes. Without those major shake-ups, commuters tend to remain creatures of habit.

Price also matters. For all that people grouse about traffic on Highway 401, which tens of thousands of Toronto-area drivers clog every day, the tolled alternative nearby remains notably less busy. And the price difference between two options sometimes doesn't have to be much for commuters to stick with the congested one. Although the QEW permits are over-subscribed now, the demand may drop if people don't really feel they have a meaningful amount more time for the money they're spending.

"Free time, it just gets sucked up by other things, we don't really even notice it," said Ms. Whillans, the UBC social psychologist. "Can we make time feel more valuable by reminding people that they can do other, better things with it?"

In an ongoing study in Vancouver, she is looking at people who use two particular bridges. In a phone interview she explained that the Port Mann is tolled while the Pattullo is free to cross. But the Pattullo is under construction and drivers face 15-to-30-minute delays compared to the tolled bridge.

"Even among people who say that the Port Mann would save them time, they would still prefer, hypothetically, to take cash, the equivalent amount of cash, as opposed to taking the toll bridge," she said. "People kind of underestimate the value of having those 30 extra minutes of free time. So they kind of think having $6, which is how much the toll is, will make them happier than having 30 better, non-stuck-in-traffic minutes."

The researchers planned to test giving one group of drivers free passage over the toll bridge, and giving the other group $6 to use as they wish. And then they'll assess how happy each group is. Ms. Whillans believes that even though people profess to prefer the money, they'll be happier with the time.

"Commuting's one of the biggest pain-points for people," she said. "What we think, because we know that commuting and sitting in traffic is bad for well-being, is that people who take the Port Mann will probably be happier."

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