Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

HOV lane lessons: Should we charge a fee to use all roads, all the time?

By: Metro Published on Mon Jul 06 2015

I’ve got a couple of questions for drivers sitting alone in their cars, stuck in traffic, looking longingly at those temporary high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes installed on GTA highways for the Pan Am Games.

First, how much would you pay to use those lanes? Five bucks a day? 20? Your first-born child?

It seems many drivers would consider paying something. When I drove around last week, I saw no shortage of people willing to risk getting a $110 fine for using the lanes without the required three occupants in their vehicle.

There have even been tales of people looking to rent expensive mannequins to cheat the system.

One way or another, a lot of drivers seem willing to pay for clear roads.

Which brings me to my second question: Wouldn’t it be great if every highway lane could pretty much always be as fast and congestion-free as these temporary HOV lanes? What would you pay for that?

For all the consternation about the lanes, they seem to be serving their intended purpose. A head-to-head test conducted by Metro last week found the HOV lanes on the Don Valley Parkway and the Gardiner get you where you’re going more than twice as quickly as the regular lanes.

Where previously all highway lanes were slow-moving during peak periods, the new HOV regulations mean one highway lane is virtually always free-flowing.

That might seem obvious — duh, if you reduce the number of cars that can use a lane, traffic in that lane will improve — but this isn’t a concept that gets a lot of play when politicians talk about fighting gridlock.

We hear much about building infrastructure, whether it be transit or refurbished waterfront expressways, but not enough about the other side of the traffic-fighting equation: Ending the subsidies on single-occupant vehicle travel and putting a price on the use of public road space.

Toronto’s HOV experiment hints at how effective that strategy could be. Putting increased requirements on the use of some lanes reduced congestion in those lanes. Putting a price — a toll — on the use of those lanes for single occupant vehicles could do much the same thing.

And what if that strategy was extended to its natural conclusion? What if there was a market price charged for the use of all roads all the time? How much would driver behaviour change? What if we treated road space like any limited market resource, and charged more for it when supply got low?

This isn’t a complete policy proposal. I’m just putting out questions to consider.

And, hey, good news — if you’re driving a single occupant vehicle this summer, you should have plenty of time to think about them.

Matt Elliott lives and writes in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter @GraphicMatt

This post was originally published at on 2015-07-06T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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