Diamond lanes are forever

Posted: Oct 07, 2003 12:00 AM

How good is good enough? That's a question you have plenty of time to ponder when you're sitting in your fossil-fueled automobile, stewing in traffic and watching other cars zoom by in High Occupancy Vehicle lanes.

The reason those cars can use the lane is that they are carrying two or three passengers (depending on the highway). Maybe the drivers come from a big family. Or maybe they are among the small group of commuters who actually changed their behavior by carpooling in earnest in order to qualify for the carpool lane.

Or maybe, as happens in the Bay Area, they picked up passengers at a casual carpool site. In that case, they're sort of cheating by carrying passengers who otherwise would have taken public transit to work.

Diamond lanes, after all, are bureaucrats' way of making the commute so hellish that desperate commuters will change their behavior. The key is to believe, as anti-car scolds do, that solo drivers are selfish clods who deserve to sit in traffic and suck up other people's exhaust. Believe that, and you might feel entitled to punish people for having the audacity to drive alone to work.

In the full flush of the recall, Gov. Gray Davis signed a bill that would make it easier for Californians to get in the fast lane -- by petitioning U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norm Mineta to allow hybrid-electric cars, which can get 45 to 60-plus miles per gallon, to use HOV lanes regardless of the number of passengers. Virginia and Arizona have sought permission to allow hybrids in HOV lanes as well. A Department of Transportation spokesman said the request was under review.

Mineta should say yes. If the goal of HOV lanes is to save energy, it's a no-brainer.

Yet, oddly, there are environmentalists who oppose allowing hybrids in HOVs because they are afraid the change will be too successful.

"It's a close call, but in my opinion, it's bad policy," said Todd Campbell, policy director of the Los Angeles-based Coalition for Clean Air. While some environmental groups have supported the idea, his group opposes it because it will lead so many people to purchase hybrids that the diamond lanes could become clogged.

"It all comes down to entitlement. If you think that you're entitled to get into the HOV lanes because you purchased a (Toyota) Prius or a hybrid car that gets you better fuel economy, I can't argue with that. But you will quickly find that you will congest your HOV lanes to the point where all the money you've invested into them and all the original goals quickly vanish."

It's an odd objection. More consumers would be spending an extra $5,000 for hybrid technology. They would burn less fuel and enjoy a faster commute. As their cars move into diamond lanes, there would be more room in "general purpose lanes."

The only reason to object is if you want gridlock.

Another plus: Detroit would feel pressure to mass-produce hybrids, instead of leaving this fuel-efficient technology to Toyota and Honda. And drivers would see the upside of saying no to SUVs.

It all comes down to entitlement, as Campbell said.

These questions, however, arise: Do Americans think they are entitled to drive on highways designed to hasten their commute rather than to deliberately slow it?

Or do voters believe -- indeed, does the Bush administration believe -- that the people's government is entitled to punish people for driving to work?