HOV lanes lure impatient commuters
September 5, 2006
Ninety-two people violated the HOV law at Buttermilk in one half hour last Wednesday.The Aspen Times set up a dragnet Wednesday morning at the intersection Owl Creek Road and Highway 82. The flow of people driving alone in the High Occupancy Vehicle lane, which requires two or more passengers, was nonstop from 7:45-8:15 a.m., one of the peaks of the morning commuter hour. “I’m not from here” and “I didn’t know” were common answers by the law breakers we talked with as they rolled by. Some looked cowed and even hid their faces from our camera. Others dodged into the designated single-occupancy left lane.A number of drivers said that the HOV program isn’t working and pointed out that it is not being enforced in any meaningful way. Since January, the Colorado State Patrol has issued a total of 34 citations in Pitkin County to drivers who were riding alone at rush hour in the HOV lanes.
“I wish it would end,” said one commuter riding into town with his brother. “Nobody is consistent. If we stuck to it, it works out OK, but nobody does.””It would be better if we just could keep right except to pass like in most places,” the brother said.During peak commuter hours, single passenger vehicles (SOVs) are restricted to the left lane, while high occupancy vehicles carrying two or more people, are allowed to use both lanes. Most cities have HOV lanes on the far left, but the restricted lane was put on the right on Highway 82 in order to accommodate buses. HOV restrictions are in effect on weekdays from 6 to 9 a.m. going upvalley (entering Aspen) and from 3 to 6 p.m. downvalley.”Without HOV lanes,” said John Kruger, director of transportation for the city of Aspen, “I think that congestion would be worse than it is.”Kruger said that despite increased development and rising population, Aspen is at acceptable traffic levels. And he said that HOV lanes, along with the expansion of bus service, paid parking, and transportation option programs by employers are the reason.Dan Blankenship, CEO of the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, said that, despite some cheaters, the HOV lane helps.
Blankenship’s office conducted a survey of HOV lanes on Highway 82 in 2005 and estimated that about 10 percent of solo drivers cheated into the restricted lanes. He said that more and more drivers will rely on HOV in the future, whether on RFTA buses or carpooling.”You might not see the difference now,” he said, “but five or ten or 15 years down the road, it might be an incredible difference.”Major cities like Houston, Los Angeles and Seattle have extensive HOV programs and report success.In Washington, D.C., HOV lanes are restricted to cars with 3 passengers, and Washingtonians have a unique solution.Called “slugging,” drivers hang a sign in the window with their destination written on it. Passengers “slugging” are picked up at designated points. They have a strict protocol of “no talking” and “no radio” for the ride. Washington is just one example of the kind of ways riders can adapt and maximize the use of the road. But near Owl Creek during the Aspen Time’s informal survey last Wednesday, commuters were frustrated to the point of cheating.
The Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office does not keep records of HOV violations. A spokesman said most HOV citations written by sheriff’s deputies are tacked on to other violations like speeding, reckless driving and defective equipment.Colorado State Patrol Captain Rich Duran said state troopers conduct occasional “saturation patrols” where multiple police units work a specific area and hand out tickets or warnings to HOV lane violators.”We do go up to Pitkin County on occasion so we have a good presence,” he said.The 34 HOV citations police reported since January do not include verbal or written warning, he added.John Wilkinson, a Snowmass town councilman and member of the EOTC (Elected Officials Transportation Committee), said that the issue is enforcement, not effectiveness, of the HOV lane.”Millions of dollars have been spent to help people in the upper valley to get around in their cars,” he said. “If we’re going to spend this money, we ought to follow [the rules] in place. We should encourage people to use mass transit.”
If HOV was better enforced, Wilkinson said, single drivers stuck in the slower lane would see buses and car pool passengers go by and be encouraged to make different choices. He’d like to see better enforcement of existing laws that are “pretty much ignored.”Blankenship, though, said that he believes 90 percent of the people are doing the right thing.He said it might look like “everyone is doing it,” but that most follow the rules.Enforcement, Blankenship said, does not mean stopping every rule breaker. He said “The fact that police are out there at all will keep drivers honest.”Nearly 100 offenders in 30 minutes last Wednesday tells a different story. Aspen’s commuter woes don’t seem to be going away any time soon.Charles Agar’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.