Berkeley Professor says HOT lanes will lose money and infuriate drivers, but he overlooks his own findings

Pravin VariyaPravin Varaiya of UC Berkeley’s electrical engineering and computer sciences department claims that HOT lanes will loose money and infuriate drivers by making traffic worse. This is a blow to the San Francisco Bay Area MTC and this website which has vehemently supported the HOT lane proposal.

Yet, Varaiya’s assessment of HOT lanes is flawed. The East Bay Express says that,

He concludes that the new toll lanes will lose money for two main reasons. In less-congested areas, not enough people will use them. And on the Bay Area’s more-congested freeways, heavy demand from carpoolers won’t leave enough room for those single-occupancy vehicles that would pay the new toll.

The first flaw with this argument is that in less congested areas he is using current data, not future growth trends. Furthermore he completely neglects that these same areas generally do not have carpool lanes already in place. As such, they are part of the second phase of the HOT lane proposal that will build new lanes, but not for about a decade. The levels of congestion will almost certainly change by then.

The second flaw in Varaiya’s critique of HOT lanes is that he neglects to take into account that adjustments can be made. He says that in the areas were congestion is a problem carpool lanes require just two people in a car to use a carpool lane which makes them just about as congested as any other lane. He then points out that because of this there is limited space for toll paying single occupancy vehicles without causing congestion in the HOT lanes themselves. He neglects to mention that in this scenario the MTC will almost certainly change the requirement to three people per car to qualify as a carpool. This would reduce congestion in the HOT lane and simultaneously increase congestion on the other lanes, thus making the HOT lanes appealing to toll paying passengers.

It should be noted that Varaiya is basing his assessment of HOT lanes from previous studies that show carpool lanes are ineffective in reducing traffic and encouraging people to carpool. From these studies he also found that there is unused roadway capacity in many carpool lanes that could be used to reduce congestion on some freeways if these lanes were converted to ordinary freeway lanes (mixed flow lanes). In all probability Varaiya is right on this issue. Yet, this only supports the case for HOT lanes. Rather than simply granting the extra capacity over to all freeway users, why not sell it? This achieves a better result than simply turning the lane over to mixed flow use because when needed a HOT lane raises the toll to discourage drivers from using the HOT lane. Thus, a HOT lane is impervious to congestion. Because a lane that is full, but not congested, moves far more people then a congested roadway this means that since people using the HOT lane are taken from the mixed flow lanes, more people are taken out of the mixed flow lanes if a HOT lane is used than if that lane is simply converted over to a mixed flow lane.

So what alternative does Varaiya propose to ease congestion? He proposes signaling, specifically like that used on the Bay Bridge. However, the Bay Bridge signaling works because it can signal all drivers across the entire freeway, but this is not possible on most freeways. For a similar plan to be effective throughout the Bay Area every freeway would need signals on each freeway entrance and everywhere a freeway merges with another freeway. However, if signals where installed wherever freeways merge, this would create a backup on the freeway people are merging from – such a signaling system would not work. Yet, without this type of signaling system it is impossible to control the traffic flow on an interconnected freeway network. That is why signaling used only at on ramps does not eliminate freeway congestion, despite its’ extensive use in places such as LA.

Given the facts that Varaiya lays out, his assessment of the HOT lane proposal may be correct. However, he does not address the the fact that things can change. This makes his assessment of the HOT Lane proposal wrong. Furthermore, he completely neglects to mention how freeway lanes that do not become congested, such as HOT lanes, benefit transit and encourage people to switch modes.

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6 Responses to “Berkeley Professor says HOT lanes will lose money and infuriate drivers, but he overlooks his own findings”


  1. 1 ian May 12, 2009 at 6:20 pm

    i wish the MTC would grow a pair and get serious about promoting effective and thorough commuter / regional rail throughout the bay area.

    increasing the connectivity and coverage of transit (though SMART will help, for example) will do much more than an HOT lane network that banks on the continuing (failed) model of automobiles and sprawl…

    so if the bay area *really* wants to switch modes, it really needs to get its transit act together. Newsom and the governator are nor helping, and neither is our current, 25+ balkanized transit system.

    oh well. solutions for much more intelligent regions.

  2. 3 The Overhead Wire May 13, 2009 at 1:38 am

    I should also argue that future growth trends are predicated on expanding the highway. Many future growth trends are just sprawl developers saying put this road here and we’ll for certain build you junk.

    • 4 switchingmodes May 13, 2009 at 7:41 am

      I agree. At this point I think it is a well established fact that freeway expansion leads to sprawl. We can be pretty sure that if there is extra capacity on a freeway it will be utilized at some point in the near future; the lower land values will attract people until the freeway overreaches capacity and turns into complete gridlock.

      In a sense, building an extra lane, even if it is a HOT lane, on these freeways encourages sprawl, or what you appropriately describe at “junk.” I’m less enthusiastic about the second phase of the HOT lane network which will build new lanes rather than convert carpool (HOV) lanes to HOT lanes. Nevertheless, because these lanes will provide a revenue source for the MTC to help fund operational costs on their regional rail network, this is a good plan. I would have liked to see a clause that said any new lanes in the Bay Area will be toll lanes, and that these can only be built if the preponderance of evidence shows that they will be profitable. But I must admit that the idea of congestion pricing be introduced to the public is such monumental step in the right direction that I support this “baby step”, one that may one day lead to the implementation of congestion pricing on existing mixed flow lanes – especially the Bay Bridge.

  3. 5 anonymouse May 14, 2009 at 12:55 pm

    What I don’t get is the “HO” part of HOT lanes. Why give people a free ride? It just adds to the enforcement complexity and reduces revenue and the attractiveness of the lanes (at the limit, to zero paying customers because they’re full of non-paying HOVs). A toll already incentivizes HOVs to some extent, since the cost of the toll is presumably split among the people in the car, so the more people you have in your car, the better.


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