The Gold Rush began in California in the 1840s. As its nickname indicates, the Golden State ranks second among U.S. states in gold production (behind Alaska). But it's the “Rush” part of the phrase that commands an increasing portion of the state's radar screen.

Traffic on California's roads has more than doubled in the last two decades. The effect of congestion on productivity, fuel costs, air quality and the state's highway maintenance budgets is incalculable.

Yet California has added little highway capacity since its system was largely completed in the 1970s. According to a report by the state Legislative Analyst's Office (LAO), the number of freeway lane miles has increased just 1 percent over the last decade, despite the fact that the number of drivers has boomed.

Today, the state has approximately 49,000 lane miles of highways and another 310,000 miles of local roads that are maintained and operated by cities and counties. According to the LAO report, 964 miles of those state highways are high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes.

California was one of the first states to jump on the HOV bandwagon, opening its first lanes four years after New Jersey installed HOV lanes on I-495. According to CalTrans, the state Department of Transportation, California now has more HOV lanes than any state in the country.

That makes California an excellent test case for the efficacy of HOV lanes.

Support is there

Daniel Ru, Transportation Planning Manager for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), says the surge in HOV lanes in California really began in the early 1990s when residents voted for a sales tax to help finance their construction. Fourteen percent of Los Angeles residents use the county's 369 miles of HOV lanes every day. “In numbers, that adds up to a lot of people,” Ru says. Seventy percent of the state's HOV lanes operate in Southern California, with the remaining 30 percent in the San Francisco Bay area and the Sacramento region.

But California public opinion about the lanes is mixed. “There are people who don't want HOV lanes because they don't believe the lanes are being used enough, and then there are people that love them because commuting from suburb to suburb is very difficult,” says Greg Bayol, CalTrans' chief of public and legislative affairs in Oakland. (Bayol estimates that the HOV lanes carry at least as many people as the regular lanes.)

To date, various public opinion surveys have been conducted and focus groups formed to evaluate public attitudes towards HOV lanes. A recent CalTrans survey of 3,000 residents found that 88 percent supported carpool lanes, but 42 percent believed the lanes were underused.

According to a 1999 report on urban roadway congestion by the Texas Transportation Institute, California is home to three of the nation's 10 worst commutes. A 1998 study by CalTrans found that vehicle delays on California's urban freeways more than doubled between 1997 and 1998. The CalTrans report also noted that 40 percent of the state's urban freeways are heavily congested. In Los Angeles and Orange County, fully 84 percent of the freeways earn that designation.

Making them work

California state law mandates that HOV lanes fulfill two goals: reduce traffic congestion and improve air quality. But a 1997 study conducted by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District concluded that the lanes fail to meet those goals. “HOV lanes have no consistently positive effects on traffic congestion and air quality,” the report noted.

They also apparently are not being used, according to a high-profile study by the LAO, a non-partisan office that has been providing fiscal and policy information for 55 years. The study, completed in January 2001, determined that the lanes were operating at only two-thirds capacity in terms of the number of vehicles.

The study is flawed because it uses number of vehicles rather than number of people carpooling as a measure of HOV utility, Bayol says. He states that all HOV lanes in the state are being used to some extent, more in the denser parts of the San Francisco Bay Area, and less in places like Santa Clara County, where industrial parks are integrated into suburban neighborhoods. “Our job is to move people [not vehicles] as efficiently as possible,” he says.

LAO says the negative perception of HOV lanes could be mitigated if CalTrans would improve its data collection methods. There are plans in the works to do just that.

In March 2000, the Los Angeles County MTA in partnership with CalTrans, the Federal Highway Administration and the California Highway Patrol undertook a $2.5 million study to evaluate HOV lanes in the Los Angeles region. The study, the largest independent and comprehensive evaluation of mainline HOV lanes in the Los Angeles region ever undertaken, is part of what is called the HOV Performance Program. Its objectives are threefold: to enhance existing data collection sources; to analyze travel impacts and user benefits; and to develop policy recommendations.

Additionally, CalTrans plans to conduct a statewide marketing campaign to educate the public about HOV lanes. “There is some confusion now about the hours of operation of the part-time HOV lanes, where and how to exit [both part and full-time] lanes,” Bayol says. The agency's goal is to develop a system of interconnecting transit lines, including bus, rail, and park-and-ride lots, and to make access to HOV lanes easier.

The LAO report also recommended that the legislature adapt underused HOV lanes into high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes. It is an idea that worked in San Diego, where, in 1996, an eight-mile, two-lane stretch of San Diego's I — 15 was converted to a HOT lane.

There, solo drivers wanting to travel one of the two free-flowing HOT lanes pay a toll ranging from 50 cents to $8, with the fee increasing as traffic congestion increases. Congestion is monitored by loop detectors in the pavement, and the resulting fee is displayed on electronic signs prior to lane entry.

The $9.95 million, federally funded project boosted the number of carpoolers using the lanes every day from 9,200 to 14,000, according to Brian Pessaro, associate regional manager for the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG). “When people see the price to travel alone or to carpool and not pay at all, carpooling wins out,” Pessaro says.

HOT lanes have resulted in a 70 percent increase in carpooling since the project was first implemented, says Kim Kawada, principal planner for at the SANDAG. “We are not seeing this kind of increase in carpooling in any other region [of the state],” Kawada says.

The California legislature recently approved a bill to keep the HOT lanes in the San Diego area open on an indefinite basis, and SANDAG plans to extend the lanes 16 additional miles, creating access at intermediate points along the way. Plans also include increasing capacity from two to four lanes.

Kawada believes that it is not a matter of “Build it and they will come.” She says that prediction and long-range planning models are essential elements in determining whether people will actually use HOV lanes. “We can't build new lanes and expect people will use them,” she says. “We need contingency plans to determine use and alternatives if the lanes are underused.”