3 Reasons HOV Lanes Are Effective in Washington (and Can Work in Tennessee Too)

By Jason Zasky

In 2015 a driver in Washington State made headlines when he was ticketed for driving in a high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane with a cardboard cutout as a passenger. More specifically, a cardboard cutout of the actor who plays “the most interesting man in the world” in advertisements for Dos Equis beer, which prompted a local media outlet to quip: “Troopers don’t always stop people in the HOV lanes, but when they do they prefer ‘dos’ passengers.” Even the State Patrol had a laugh about the incident, referencing the signature line of the ad campaign when it tweeted: “I don’t always violate the HOV lane law … but when I do, I get a $124 ticket.”

It’s no surprise a story like this emerged in Washington; in 2016 there were more than 10,000 citations written in the Evergreen State for HOV lane violations, as compared to fewer than 200 in Tennessee. The penalty for an HOV lane citation is stiffer there, too. In fact, it has been raised three times in the past five years—to $136, as compared to $50 in Tennessee.

A big part of the problem with HOV lane utilization in the Volunteer State is lack of enforcement, not to mention a lack of understanding among the general public about how proper usage of HOV lanes could reduce congestion on Tennessee highways.

What can Tennessee learn from Washington?
According to the Tennessee Department of Transportation there are 1,181 interstate highway miles in Tennessee and 144 HOV lane miles (sixth-most in the country), with the overwhelming majority (121) in the Nashville Metro area. The bad news is that our HOV lanes are underutilized; statistics from DATA USA show that 81.7 percent of Nashville commuters drive alone, and just 9.8 percent of local commuters carpool. That explains, in part, why the average commute in the Metro area is 25.7 minutes and why Nashville is 19th on TomTom’s Traffic Index for Worst Commute in the U.S.

The good news is that Nashville (and Memphis) can quickly make the transition to better utilization of HOV lanes via a handful of simple measures.

The first is to increase the penalties for a violation, which would require action by the Tennessee Legislature, as the penalties are spelled out in sec.  55-8-188 of the Tennessee Code. Best practices suggest raising the fine for first-time offenders and then escalating the penalties for repeat offenders (as is the law in Colorado and Georgia); consideration should also be given to making it a moving violation that counts as one or more points on a driver’s license.

Second, it’s vital to invest in highway signage that educates consumers about the purpose and benefits of HOV lanes and the penalties for violating HOV rules and regulations. Better awareness is likely to result in improved voluntary compliance.

Third, state and local police should step up and enforce the law … with the help of everyday commuters. In Washington, commuters can report other drivers who have violated HOV lane laws (see the state’s HERO program) by calling a hotline or reporting them online. (More than 44,000 license plate numbers were reported to HERO between 2013 and ’15; first violators receive educational material, second violators receive a letter from the HOV agency, and third violators receive a letter from the State Police.)

Tennessee already has a similar system in place that allows consumers to report drivers who litter roadways; that same system could be extended to cover HOV lane violations.

Using patrolmen to properly enforce the law and crowd sourced reporting for education has really paid off for Washington, where HOV violation rates are less than five percent (the lowest rates in the country).  Having achieved compliance, the average HOV lane carries 1.5 times more people and brings 18% fewer vehicles into their metro employment centers.  When compared to regular highway lanes, the HOV lane in Washington save each user up to 16 minutes during rush hour!  Time savings and less frustration are the two best incentives for ridesharing — and it works!

The Future of HOV, Express Lanes in Tennessee
While states like Washington have achieved compliance by policing and using people power, technology is expected to play an increasing role in managing traffic congestion going forward. Many states have invested in automated enforcement, using thermal cameras to catch HOV lane violators, but it’s not legal to use camera enforcement systems in Tennessee – except in a construction zone.  The State Legislature needs to change this law to allow use of proven technologies for HOV lane enforcement. Another idea, advocated by Vanderbilt University’s Malcolm Getz in his recent commentary Car and Transit Futures in Nashville, is to create express lanes that use digital systems that can also collect tolls.  And in the “walk before we run” category of public policy, HOV lanes offer Middle Tennessee the perfect demand testing opportunity for Bus Rapid Transit. Clear HOV lanes during rush hour would support increased RTA bus service schedules. Public interest in taking the bus for highway commutes could be proven out, helping justify future investments in a dedicated lane.

To be sure, investing in additional HOV infrastructure certainly seems prudent, especially in light of how Nashville is using a pioneering technology to encourage drivers to carpool. Consider, for example, Hytch, an app that forward thinking Nashville area companies are using to pay employees and their commuting partners to share rides to and from work. Companies offering cash incentives through Hytch are taking cars off the road, reducing the city’s carbon footprint, and encouraging the increased (proper) use of HOV lanes.

As for the radical idea of abandoning HOV lanes entirely, well, that has been tried elsewhere—and ended in disaster.  Responding to a popular argument that “HOV lanes don’t work” city leaders in Jakarta (Indonesia) eliminated HOV lanes entirely last June.  Traffic congestion dramatically and immediately increased.  The time in transit for everyone increased by 25% -30% according to TomTom’s Traffic Index, and now Jakarta has the third-worst traffic in the world.

Maybe the first step, and certainly the least costly of all the options being debated in Nashville’s transit puzzle, is to actually start enforcing our existing HOV laws.

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  1. Thank you for recognizing the problem we have with the HOV lanes. Driving in to Nashville for a doctor’s appointment at Vanderbilt one morning, I noticed that over 1/2 of the drivers in the HOV lane were solo drivers. It would really make a difference if only cars with 2 or more people were in that lane.

  2. Citing Jakarta as proof to the effectiveness of HOV lanes is bad science. Jakarta’s situation got worse because people were using rickshaw transits to get around (which were clogging the other lanes). An area in Vancouver actually removed HOV lanes, as have some other cities because their goal of increasing ride shares were not met. Not to mention the increased accidents in the HOV lanes because you have slower traffic in the far left lane merging with fast traffic when there is enough clearance. And in areas where the cops are constantly pulling violators over, guess what happens to traffic? Everyone slows down.

    If you want to reduce fuel consumption, the best thing you can do is find ways to move traffic as quickly and efficiently as possible. HOV lanes may have good intentions and make people feel good but like a lot of other liberal ideas – they don’t actually do good.

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