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Another common tragedy

I made a note of John Tierney’s column in this morning’s Times, but I can’t for the life of me figure out why I thought this piece of drivel was worth blogging. It’s called The Road to Hell Is Clogged With Righteous Hybrids, and as you can imagine, it’s filled with the sort of sneering at “those of us virtuous enough to drive the right hybrids.” As a recent passenger in one of those hybrids, YHB is pretty sure that, um, well, whatever. Should Mr. Tierney choose to pay twice as much per mile for his ride, that’s fine with me. I’m sure it’s no reflection on his character.

The actual policy matter that occasions Mr. Tierney’s sneers is the decision to open High-Occupancy Vehicle lanes to high-mileage cars. He states that “even if these new privileges put more fuel-efficient cars on the road, I'm afraid the net effect will be dirtier air and more gasoline consumption.” Um, why? Because with so many cars in the HOV lanes, the HOV lanes will get clogged, and those backed-up cars will idle, burning gas and causing pollution. This, you see, is the Tragedy of the Commons. Perhaps that’s why I flagged it, although the writer doesn’t totally misuse the TotC. He does have people acting in somewhat perplexing ways; I’m not sure why, once the HOV lane gets clogged, it remains in people’s interest to take it. I would guess that’s a Nash Equilibrium situation, where after a while, a new status quo sets in, with more (and slower) cars in the HOV lane, but that lane still moving slightly faster than the other lanes. Perhaps the equilibrium won’t set in until the HOV lane is essentially no faster than the others, which would remove the incentive for carpooling, but since nobody carpools anyway, I can’t say I’d get all weepy about that.

Oh, and Mr. Tierney? I know you say you’ve been driving a Prius, but you somehow missed the most obvious thing about it. It doesn’t idle. It doesn’t idle. Four days ago, Your Humble Blogger was stuck in traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike, and used up, oh, about, let’s see, six drops of gas in the half-hour I was waiting to see the car fire. Yes, the battery did get a bit run down, but it seems to have topped itself back up, and we got 45-50 mpg on the trip. A traffic jam of Priussessii wouldn’t be much fun to be in, but it wouldn’t involve a whole heck of a lot of gas and pollution. Or noise.

Anyway, Mr. Tierney’s preferred alteration to the HOV lane is to convert it to an HOT lane, which has the advantage of a far better acronym (does anybody actually pronounce it huhv? or hohv?). HOT stands for high-occupancy toll, which does not, as one might imagine, charge a toll for those with high-occupancy, but rather allows low-occupancy cars into the lane for a consideration. There are obvious logistical problems, it seems to me. You can’t use an EZ-Pass kind of thing, unless individuals have them embedded in their persons, since there would be no way of knowing whether a car is high- or low-occupancy on a given trip. So every car would have to stop to pay the toll (or get a head count and be waved through). Mr. Tierney’s suggestion of setting tolls by the weight of the vehicle also would require a weigh station, adding to the length of the stop, but feasible enough. Mr. Tierney allows that one could give a discount to hybrid engines, although he doesn’t see why we would want to.

Which, by the way, is where he totally misses the point, or pretends to, anyway. The HOV lane is not intended to decrease the pollution or gas consumption of the cars on it. It decreases the pollution and gas consumption of the cars left at home by the second and third occupants of the cars on it. It is a bribe. It is a government incentive to carpool, or take the bus, or otherwise waive your Right to Drive. If you act like a good citizen, the government will let you drive in this nice empty lane. Mr. Tierney doesn’t address the real point, which is that the State of California (and the State of Virginia, and a few others) are willing to bribe people to buy hybrids, because they have noticed that without the bribes, people don’t really want to buy hybrids. It’s fair to ask whether the state should care, or whether if the state does care it should act on that caring or stay out of the whole thing, sure. But he doesn’t do that. He just ignores the entire point of the policy. Perhaps it would be easier for him if we called it the bribe lane.

Should the state give the same bribe to hybrids as high-occupancy cars? OK, that’s a fair question. Should the state allow Hummer drivers to drive on the bribe lane for a fee? Er, why again?

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,


hybrids, and not SUVs, are the tragedy of the commons? i can't believe i just read that.

aren't subsidized highways themselves, encouraging people to travel incredibly inefficiently, enough of a tragedy? and so much larger, maybe he's having a forest/trees problem. but he doesn't see it, doesn't propose ending the whole free ride or increasing the price for "heavy" vehicles in every lane - gah, he can't even bring himself to say that gas guzzling is unsustainable and we all know it.

HOT names have another name: HIV, for high income vehicle.

I don't think it's that he fails to see it, I think it's that he is deliberately attempting to distract from it. Look, a tree! Look, it's, um, got leaves!


My impression is that HOT lanes are all about reducing traffic, and nothing about social policy. I don't know why "high occupancy" appears in the name; they're not really about high-occupancy vehicles, except perhaps insofar as it's cheaper per person to use one if you're driving a car with multiple people (and if those people all contribute towards paying your fare).

Ignoring the article: I think the key thing for policy in this area is to decide what goal the legislators want to achieve.

If they want to reduce congestion, then they probably shouldn't allow anything but multi-occupant vehicles in the carpool lane. The idea is then to provide an incentive for people to travel in groups. Of course, if enough people take that incentive and start traveling in groups, then the carpool lane gets as jammed as the other lanes, and there stops being any incentive. But everyone knows that carpools aren't appealing enough for this to happen anytime soon. (Though with the price of gas going through the roof, more people may consider it, who knows.)

If the gov't wants to reduce emissions and/or gas consumption, then they should allow motorcycles and hybrids and electric cars and PZEVs and such; the incentive is then for people to drive vehicles that use less fuel and/or burn it more cleanly. What a lot of people are concerned about (including the dealer who sold me my Prius) is that this incentive will work too well; that (at least in some areas, like around here) hybrids are popular anyway, and don't really need that incentive, and that soon the carpool lanes will be as jammed as the other lanes, only with hybrids.

Note, btw, that the entire Toyota product line will be hybrid by 2010; I doubt all of them will meet the MPG standard for driving in the carpool lane, but still, there'll be a lot more hybrids on the road.

I can see the concern. And yet, I'm sending in the paperwork to get my sticker. I'll still avoid the freeways during rush hour whenever possible—around here, the carpool lanes are often jammed anyway—but on rare occasions it'll be nice to be able to get somewhere faster if I need to, and I'm not above taking advantage of the incentive even though I'm dubious about it.

Anyway, mostly I'm just rambling. A couple of specific comments on your comments, though:

1. The way the EZ-Pass-like system works around here is that you get a mylar bag that blocks the transponder. So you only take it out of the bag when you want it to operate. Apparently people really do (in some contexts, anyway) take it out for tolls when they're not carpooling. So this is at least a conceivable way of doing it, though inelegant.

2. "without the bribes, people don't really want to buy hybrids"—I can't tell whether what I'm seeing is just a Silicon Valley geeks-who-like-toys thing or not, but around here the perception is that hybrids are Cool, and pretty much everyone wants one. They can't necessarily afford one, even with the government-provided tax break that's meant to help offset the price difference, but they admire them. And I suspect that will become more and more true over time, and that prices will drop as the market gets bigger. But yeah, in the rest of the country hybrids may well be viewed with suspicion.

3. I can sorta kinda see the idea of HOT lanes making sense. It's a sort of backwards bribe: think of it as putting a penalty on driving single-occupancy. You can take the penalty either as a slower/worse driving experience, or as a cash payment. (To put it another way: think of the lane as a toll road, on which certain vehicles are allowed to drive for free.) It took me a while to contort my mind into seeing that as logical, though, so I'm not sure it'll hold up under closer examination.

bus traffic is the real issue with the HOV lanes becoming crowded. timetables get screwed up. those lanes are only partly about carpools.

having sat through I-580 (from the SF bay out to stockton) at mid-day, with bumper-to-bumper 20 mph traffic for about 50 miles, my feeling is that every incentive to switch to a greener hybrid, or at least one that doesn't idle, is worth it.

it seems like the issue for most of the country isn't the coolness but the cost, the worst part being how much of the value of their existing car is disappearing as gas prices go up. SUV resale values are going to suck, soon, if not already.

jed: "pretty much everyone" excludes millions of people in the bay area.

Hmm. When I said "pretty much everyone," I meant "pretty much everyone I'm in contact with in the region of the Peninsula where I live and work." I was exaggerating, but there are an awful lot of people around here who think hybrids are cool. (And note that I was talking about people who think hybrids are cool, not people who can afford them.)

well... yeah... i'm just a little upset at how well the prius is doing as a greenwashing project. people are losing their ability to judge how widely the technology will be applied, the impact it will have, and how insignificant that impact will be even at its unregulated best, compared with the reductions the country needs to make to save our butts.

Well, with a new Prius in the household, I can say that it seems as if everybody wants one. On the other hand, a lot of people who want one, and could afford one if they gave up some other things, are not buying them, so there it is. The notorious six-month wait doesn't help, even if it isn't true.
I should add that I do think it makes sense to restrict HOV lanes to high-occupancy vehicles during rush hours, rather than let greener cars use them, but then I have never actually had a car commute. I have commuted by train, car, subway and foot, and then when I moved to the not-city, I stopped working. I also haven't read any city-planning literature for three or four years, so really I have almost no idea how the things work in practice, or how expensive or productive changing them would likely be.

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