Do Solo HOV Lane Drivers Create “Adverse Social Costs”?

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Between 2005 and 2011, the state of California gave hybrid and plug-in car drivers an estimated 85,000 Clean Air Vehicle Stickers. These stickers gave drivers access to HOV lanes on California’s congested highways, but a new study says these solo green car drivers cost the state $4,500 each every year in “adverse social costs,” whatever that is.

The study from Cornell University says giving solo drivers access to HOV lanes increases carbon emissions and traffic congestion on already-clogged roads. Furthermore, as many as two-thirds of the original 85,000 members of the sticker program already owned a 45+ MPG hybrid (i.e. the Toyota Prius) already had a hybrid, so it didn’t do much to spur new sales. A new sticker program enacted in 2011 has since added another 40,000 (potentially) solo HOV drivers to California’s roads, and during rush hour each of these single-occupant green cars costs as much as $4,500 in lost time and additional pollution.

How do hybrids add pollution, you ask? Because each solo hybrid driver means there’s an additional car (or two!) on the road instead of a carpooler, and those extra emissions aren’t countered by a single person in a hybrid. On the flip side, the study doesn’t seem So the solution is to just end the HOV sticker program, right? Well it’s not quite that simple.

The HOV sticker program has proven exceptionally popular in California, with many EV and plug-in hybrid drivers citing it as a main reason they bought their vehicles. A similar program in Norway lets EV drivers get around paying tolls and use bus lanes, which has made EVs the best-selling vehicles in the country. But even that program is also coming under fire by bus drivers who say EVs are causing congestion for public transit riders.

This has led to an argument over the place of EV incentives as a whole in the marketplace. It’s easy to see both sides of the argument, though the effectiveness of HOV lane access should not be understated. On the other hand, these programs are temporary at best, and the best of intentions doesn’t always lead to the best of results.

Ultimately it boils down to asking what are the goals of the program; more plug-in car drivers, or less congestion and lower emissions?

Christopher DeMorro

A writer and gearhead who loves all things automotive, from hybrids to HEMIs, can be found wrenching or writing- or else, he's running, because he's one of those crazy people who gets enjoyment from running insane distances.