In the DC metro area, too many cars on the highway may seem like old news, but not when those cars are hybrids. In 2000, Vrginia lawmakers allowed owners of hybrid vehicles to drive in HOV lanes, even if the driver was the only person in the vehicle. During rush hour, HOV lanes are generally limited to cars with two (HOV-2) or three (HOV-3) occupants, but lawmakers allowed an exemption for HOV owners in order to reward and encourage the purchase of more fuel-efficient vehicles.
The plan worked a little too well, and now area residents are complaining. Many say the advantage of using HOV lanes has been lost, because single-occupant hybrid cars are creating almost as much traffic in the HOV lanes as in the regular travel lanes. Usage of HOV lanes increased 31 percent between 2002 and 2004 according to one study (though 22 percent of cars were in the lanes illegally). While the hybrid exemption is due to expire July 1, 2006, many area residents and state lawmakers want the exemption done away with sooner. A significant minority (43 percent) polled by the Washington Post said that the exemption for single-occupant hybrid vehicles should be discontinued.
From my perspective (which is, admittedly, speeding by on the Metro), this was a serious lack of foresight on behalf of Virginia lawmakers. The main benefit of the HOV lanes is to reduce travel time for those that use them. From those rare occasions that I can grab a ride home from work in a friend’s car, it is obvious to me that taking the HOV lane on Route 66 is much better than fighting to get on and off the Beltway. But I would be very suprised if anyone could find quantifiable information that HOV lanes markedly improve environmental conditions in a metropolitian region. As such, the state’s hybrid exemption, while laudable for rewarding the purchase of fuel-efficient vehicles, takes away the biggest benefit of using HOV lanes to begin with. For the state not to anticipate that the region’s wealthy citizens would rush out and buy hybrids so they could still drive to work solo is rather silly. Say what you will about NoVa residents (that they’d rather buy a hybrid car than make a friend, perhaps?), this problem was entirely foreseeable and entirely avoidable.
And now for something completely different: free candy. I don’t know who that guy is, but he has made my day for three days in a row.