State policy changes begin to clear the path for more effective, equitable express lanes

Clarrissa Cabansagan Headshot

New solutions needed to combat Bay Area trafficA few years ago, TransForm proposed a bold idea for reducing congestion on our highways. Instead of continuing to build bigger highways for cars – a practice proven to induce more driving and subsequently, more traffic – we envisioned using our existing roads to move more people.

To some, our approach – Optimized HOT – sounded audacious and a bit too forward-thinking. Yet today, we are seeing changes in perspective, policy, and technology that lay the groundwork to realize the promise of moving more people on our existing highways.

An alternative to business as usual

For almost as long as there have been highways, there has been traffic – and the strategy for reducing traffic has been stagnant for decades. Agencies try to “build our way out” of the gridlock by expanding roads, but it never works.

TransForm proposed an approach that would ease congestion without building more highways, called Optimized HOT (High-Occupancy Toll - that is, express lanes). In Optimized HOT, new express lanes would be created by converting an existing highway lane, at a fraction of the cost of new construction. Then, the savings would be applied to transportation choices that could reduce traffic – such as express bus service or car- and vanpooling – and to other mitigation efforts that would ensure that people of all income levels would benefit from these improvements.

Analyses have shown that Optimized HOT would reduce congestion sooner, and also have better results in the long term.  But outdated state laws, supported by long-held beliefs that the solution to gridlock is bigger roads, prohibit simply converting an existing (non-carpool lane) into an express lane. 

As a result, the only way to create an express lane is by converting a carpool lane. Under the current restrictions, the Bay Area would have to spend billions of dollars to first widen our highways (create new carpool lanes) and then convert them to express lanes in order to complete the planned Express Lane Network – only to find ourselves inevitably stuck in the same traffic a few years later.

There has to be a better way.

Changing perspective leads to changing policy

In November of last year, we had a breakthrough in thinking at the state level. Caltrans finally acknowledged that road widening leads to more traffic. The agency published a policy brief which summarizes extensive research by UC Davis scholar, Susan Handy, who has documented the concept of “induced demand,” meaning that building bigger roads results in more traffic (in both the short- and long-term), and that much of this traffic is brand new.

Then, as we recently reported, the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research released new draft California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) guidelines that start to codify this shift in perspective. These new guidelines would require road-widening projects that increase driving to also analyze cheaper and more environmentally-friendly alternatives to reduce congestion.

This is a tremendous step forward in making better use of our highways. The draft CEQA guidelines confirm that converting general purpose lanes (including ramps) into managed lanes (carpool, transit-only, or express lanes) is an improvement that likely reduces congestion and driving.

And most importantly, if a road widening project is found to substantially increase driving, the guidelines allow agencies to implement alternatives. These include:

  • Converting existing general purpose lanes to carpool lanes or HOT lanes; and
  • Tolling new lanes to encourage carpools and fund transit improvements.

These are the key components needed to enable Optimized HOT in California and beyond. And that means that, if the Bay Area is willing to pilot Optimized HOT, we can get traffic relief sooner, and that relief would be more effective than if we were to build new lanes on our highways.

Getting the Bay Area out of gridlock

See how traffic disappears in the photos below, when the same 60 solo drivers only take up the space of one bus?

Comparing 60 people driving versus riding a busThis is what our region’s corporate shuttles have been doing as they transport workers from one end of the region to Silicon Valley.

But not everyone has this option. The majority of commute traffic is still made up of solo drivers - 67% to be exact! Even with BART and Caltrain bursting at the seams, that statistic hasn’t budged since the 1970s. And right now, on Highway 101 along the Peninsula, everyone is stuck in the same traffic, whether they’re alone in their sedan or riding with several dozen colleagues in a corporate bus.

We believe that Silicon Valley’s most crowded stretch of highway may be the best place to test Optimized HOT. In fact, some of the most recent technology coming out of the Valley may be the key to success. New transportation options are geared toward getting more butts in empty seats – not just with commuter shuttles, but with smartphone apps that make it easier than ever for people to share a ride and spare some of the solo trips that clog our highways.

In the past, carpooling and vanpooling have seemed clunky, and some have questioned whether they’d really be able to relieve traffic at the levels we’re suffering today. But new commute options like ride, scoop, and carma are encouraging carpools to form with much less hassle (and, apparently, fewer capital letters too!). Plus, Lyft just announced a partnership with the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) to revamp our region’s antiquated 511.org carpooling system, a partnership “that will relieve congestion for regional commuters traveling on Bay Area highways.”

And while still in early stages, our regional Plan for housing and transportation is starting to address the long-haul commutes that are now too common. Draft scenarios for Plan Bay Area 2040 include strategies that could be implemented with Optimized HOT, such as a “regional bus system” and “expansion of the regional express lanes network, to use existing roadways more efficiently.”

Pioneering solutions for the future could start now

The time has never been more ripe to try out new solutions to the soul-crushing, demoralizing gridlock plaguing the Bay Area’s highways and travelers. Now that state agencies are officially backing away from road widening as the sole strategy, there’s no excuse for our regional agencies to hold back. We can stop building highways, and start providing real transportation choices that get people where they need to go more quickly, more safely, and more affordably.

We’ve got our work cut out for us, for sure. But these recent changes give us hope that if we keep working to encourage the Bay Area’s leaders to pilot Optimized HOT, we will be able, very soon, to dramatically improve our most congested corridors – for all travelers – with the bold and forward-looking way of thinking that made the Bay Area great in the first place.

Stay up to date on our work on express lanes by subscribing to our blog, or contact Clarrissa Cabansagan for more information.

Photo credits: Richard Masoner; Cycling Promotion Fund

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About This Blog

TransForum is the blog of TransForm, California's leading transportation advocate. For more about our work, including ways you can take action and contribute, visit TransFormCA.org.