Are HOV Lanes Really a Good Idea?

Are HOV Lanes Really a Good Idea?

I recently took a car trip of about 150 miles. I’m still recovering from it, as I drove by myself and practically every mile was bumper to bumper (I exaggerate, but only slightly). So, I sat, stewed, and twiddled my thumbs. (I did so to baroque music, so it wasn’t a total waste, but still…)

The lane next to me was limited to high-occupancy vehicles (HOV), or vehicles with two or more occupants. Every once in a rare while, a car came whizzing by. Grr! If this third lane on the highway were open to all, the two lanes in which I was legally allowed would have moved quite a bit faster. The HOV lane was virtually empty!

One societal benefit of the HOV arrangement is that it moves more people. This is surely a good thing, but it does not always work out as smoothly as policy-makers desire. Based upon my experience at least on that trip, few vehicles took advantage of the extra lane.

Of course, it cannot be denied that at other times the HOV lane is quite full. But this situation can be a dangerous one. Some drivers with multiple-occupancy automobiles slowpoke along at exactly the speed limit. Others wish to be the leaders of the parade, traveling at higher speeds, having to zig and zag, and changing lanes all over the place to get ahead of the turtles.

I’m not the only one with some doubts. One driver, commenting on a newly installed HOV lane near his home, is at least skeptical: “I’ve been in other states where they have [HOV lanes], and I’ve seen some horrific things happen. A motorcycle ripping down the HOV lane, someone goes out, and bam.”

Without the HOV, speedy drivers would be consigned to the standard lanes, making it safer for everyone. And at some 40,000 traffic fatalities on our nation’s roads every year, this is not a light consideration.

Sure, one societal goal might be to move as many people on the highway as possible. But another might be even more important: maximizing societal wealth.

Suppose that there are five busboys in an HOV lane car. If their productivity is $20 per hour, the economy saves $100 for the hour they save in traffic. Meanwhile, a whole host of doctors, lawyers, scientists, and CEOs, whose time is worth $500 hourly, are just sitting, cooling their heels in the bumper-to-bumper traffic nearby. It would take a whole busload of busboys in the HOV lane to equal the GDP contribution of one economically high-profile citizen. So while busboy work is important, it contributes differently to the economy.

Ultimately, this affects society in profound ways. If we want to cure cancer and other terrible diseases, get colonies on the moon or Mars, and diminish poverty, we could do with quite a bit more wealth than we now have. Nations will not become affluent by allowing high-priced workers to cool their heels in the slow lanes while busboys travel speedily by.

However, this problem, important as it is, is not the real, underlying difficulty with HOVs. The real problem is that we have no way, under present institutional arrangements, to make any determination as to whether or not the above-mentioned misgivings are correct.

Suppose our highways were privately owned. (Please do not stop reading at this point out of fear of becoming involved with a madman. Our first thoroughfares, turnpike highways, were privately owned and dated back to the 18th century; in England, privatization goes back a further millennium. As well, other “long thin things” were privately owned, such as railroads. Even parts of the New York City subway system were initially privately owned.)

Under private ownership, some managers would presumably initiate HOVs; others would not. Then we would be able to ascertain whether, and to what extent, they were justified by considerations of economics, productivity, and ethics—rather than a roundtable of detached politicians.

At the very least, for something that impacts so many of us directly and daily, it’s worth considering both the benefits and drawbacks, bearing patiently with possible frustrations in the meantime. And while HOV lanes are currently not a discussion on most legal tables, their practical and economic implications make it clear that even “simple” things like roads are more complicated than meets the eye.

Editor’s note: This article was republished by the Foundation for Econonomic Education (FEE) with permission from Intellectual Takeout.

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