Massachusetts Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack expressed surprise earlier this week that the high-occupancy vehicle lanes on the state highways outside Boston aren’t doing anything to reduce traffic congestion.
“I was shocked to find out that there is a closed Twitter group for people who use your carpool lane where they tweet at each other and say, ‘There’s no cops, it’s OK for single cars to use it,’” Pollack said at a meeting of the Baker administration’s Local Government Advisory Commission. “And we think as much as 80 or 90 percent of the traffic is actually just individual people in cars and it’s not functioning as a carpool lane.”
That’s not news to the tens of thousands of North Shore and Merrimack Valley drivers idling in the clotted traffic on Interstate 93 outside Boston. Looking to their left, before Mass Highway suspended the HOV rules on I-93 last spring, commuters could see the solo drivers slipping into the lanes supposed to be reserved for autos with a driver and one or more passengers. The annoyance is lessened just a tad by seeing the offending cars slow to a crawl up ahead; the HOV lanes in these parts don’t actually get you into the city that much faster.
And that’s the problem with HOV lanes: They don’t really work. When people break the rules, as is happening now, traffic slows to a crawl. When the HOV lanes are filled with cars with two or more passengers, traffic in the regular lanes is eased — but only for a short time because the easier the commute, the more likely people are to use their cars. “If some high-capacity vehicles are diverted out of general purpose lanes, that provides a more open lane, and that more open lane will be filled with additional traffic,” Dan Allison wrote for the civic affairs group Strong Towns in 2017. “The HOV lane itself, being more open than adjacent lanes, will create additional traffic. Drivers respond to their perception of crowding and delay. If they see more space, they will drive more. It’s induced demand, simple as that.
“So an HOV lane increases overall traffic.”
If the Baker administration wants to make life easier for North of Boston travelers, instead of reworking the HOV lanes, it should intensify efforts to upgrade the commuter rail system, which in its current state is so scattershot and unreliable that it essentially forces people into their cars.