One is the Loneliest Number

Recently the Reason Foundation released a thought-provoking article about the decline in carpooling and the need to convert high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes into high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes. We at Carma Technology Corporation have more than a decade working to promote and encourage the development of carpools, and while we generally agree with the author’s recommendation to expand HOT lanes, several viewpoints expressed invite further conversation.

Support for Carpooling

The author describes the noticeable decline in carpooling around the nation despite decades of federal support. We’d like to start by recognizing the initial point made: yes, carpooling is in decline. Over the past several decades the rate of carpooling has reduced to half of what it was. The reasons for this decline are numerous, but the primary reason, as discussed in a 2018 Reason piece, is a changing economy. Technology advances and a changing workplace have made our jobs and lives more dynamic. This, in part, explains why carpooling may have declined, whereas the percentage of American’s teleworking has increased.

However, it’s our belief that it has been the failure of policy leaders to embrace innovation and technology that has also led to a reduction in carpooling.

How to Support Carpooling

Let’s address the second part of the author’s opening statement regarding decades of federal support. This is where we have a stark difference of opinion with the author. Federal authority to construct HOV lanes is not exactly what we call policy support.

HOV (and HOT lanes) are incredibly important physical aspects of creating a policy environment that supports carpooling. While the author correctly describes many HOV lanes as either being too hot or too cold, the author fails to recognize that a carpool lane, whether too hot or too cold, still carries more people per lane-mile than a regular, general purpose lane. It is our hope that policy makers see moving people as a far more important metric than moving vehicles.

Supportive carpooling policies are more than support for physical infrastructure. First, there need to be policies in place to encourage and incentivize carpooling. A TRB research report 2021 found that access to an HOV lane was the primary factor leading an individual to carpool (Li 2007). HOV lanes provide an inherent time saving, but only if there is integrity. As the author correctly states, many HOV lanes do not provide time savings because they are filled with violators. However, the answer to this problem isn’t to add more vehicles, rather it’s to restore integrity and ensure that only those who should be using the lane have access to the HOV lane. We believe that the best way to do that is through automated vehicle occupancy detection, about which we will be releasing a separate paper in the near future. We also believe that, once integrity is restored, it should be possible for excess capacity to be sold to drivers who drive alone. But the key to any HOV or HOT lane is integrity and verifying occupancy. It is critical that any HOV or HOT system effectively addresses this issue. 

Effective Transportation Systems Require More Than Infrastructure

Now to deal with HOV lanes that are too cold – the author spoke of several regions that have a network of HOT lanes that effectively move lots of people and we agree with him. However, in addition to allowing solo drivers to pay for use of the HOV lanes, many of them also have in place policies and programs that create a supportive carpool environment. The HOV lanes that are too cold are too cold because they are isolated lanes, not fully connected and not supported by additional State, regional, or local efforts.

Getting people to share a ride requires more than simply laying asphalt. Seattle, Houston, LA, and others have numerous policies and programs in place that incentivize commuters, work with employers, and truly support carpooling. It’s policies like the Washington State Commute Trip Reduction law that should serve as a model for other regions and are what we call real policy support. The Washington State Commute Trip reduction policy creates an environment in which the public and private sector work together to encourage transportation alternatives -- without placing needless burdens on the private sector. According to the Washington State CTR annual reports, every dollar invested has led to $19 of private investment in alternatives. It should be noted that over the past ten years the Puget Sound has seen rapid growth, however congestion has remained largely stagnant and in some terms improved.

Given current federal fiscal restraints and the current state of our infrastructure, we believe that federal policy makers should be looking to the Washington State law, amongst others, as an example.

Our own work with a regional employer in the Dallas region shows how effective targeted programs can be. https://www.gocarma.com/corporate-rideshare  even in a car centric state like Texas.  In this project hybrid vehicles placed in suburban neighborhoods with large concentrations of Toyota employees. Through an extensive and targeted campaign, the project was able to yield an average of 3.1 occupants per vehicle per trip (to/from employment campus), almost triple the national average.  In this pilot, participants actually paid $2-3 for the one-way service (based upon route). The benefits expressed by the users include time & money savings, front row parking on campus (saving ~:10/day), productive time during commute and networking with colleagues.

Why A Supportive Carpool Policy Matters

Why should the federal government invest in a supportive carpool policy? In short, because it’s in the federal government’s best financial interest. Decades of under-investment and dependence on an infrastructure-only policy has created a transportation system that is in disrepair and cannot handle future economic expansion. In short, we have a dollars’ worth of need and a dime in our pockets. If for no reason other than necessity, federal policy-makers must look for ways to get more people through the existing infrastructure. Therefore, we respectfully recommend the following:

  • Establish  policies that encourage integrity and time-savings along HOV and HOT lanes. Agencies should begin to move away from enforcing HOV policies and instead look to verifying occupancy using automated technologies.

  • Encourage and invest in new HOT lanes and convert (where there is capacity) HOV lanes into HOT lanes.

  • Require future priced facilities that leverage  federal assistance to require HOV and time-of-day discounts.

  • Establish and fund planning, support, and incentive policies such as the Washington State CTR.

  • Create a Federal Congestion Relief program that uses funds to increase the capacity of the existing system using technology, operations and better management. 

The recommendations above match closely those of the 2013 FHWA study of casual carpooling. We are grateful to the Reason foundation for initiating such a thought-provoking piece and look forward to working with policy makers and other stakeholders to improve our transportation system.

10 Policy Changes for a Better Climate

A multi-agency government report released last week provides a stark reminder about the impact climate change will have on the global economy. That report signaled that unless immediate steps are taken, the impacts of climate change could reduce GDP by as much as 10%, or twice that of the 2008 recession. The report outlines not only the far-reaching impacts on our economy, but also how climate change will impact our health, transportation system, and military capabilities.

This report follows the publication last month of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report, with its stark description of a rapid acceleration in global warming and the urgent need for emissions to reach net zero.

Transportation remains the single largest greenhouse gas (GHG) polluter, responsible for 28.5% of all emissions in the United States (EPA, 2016). Making our transportation system more efficient will not only aid the climate, but it will also improve the transportation system, reduce congestion, and enhance our quality of life.

While steps are being taken to make transportation cleaner, there are actions policy makers need to take to begin reducing GHG emissions immediately.  

Here are 10 policies lawmakers should implement

Reduce GHG emissions by increasing average vehicle occupancy - Incentivizing carpooling and vanpooling will increase average vehicle occupancy. Fewer cars on the roads means less GHG being emitted, it also means less congestion which benefits everyone. Policy makers should expand regional vanpool programs and create incentive programs that reward commuters who carpool

1. Municipal governments with tolled or priced facilities should provide preferential pricing for verified carpools.

2. Cities that do not have tolled or priced facilities should consider implementing a rewards program that financially (or otherwise) rewards individuals who carpool or vanpool to work.

Make sure autonomous doesn't mean empty

3. Initiate a verification system which requires autonomous vehicle operators to periodically report on average vehicle occupancy. As policy makers look to move away from a gas tax and towards a vehicle miles travelled tax, the policy should incentivize higher occupancy and deter vehicles with zero or one passenger.

Integrate and enhance transit operations with shared services such as bikeshare, carshare, and other shared mobility options.

4. Creating integrated and multimodal networks will provide people with options other than driving alone. Numerous studies have shown that access to carshare, bikeshare, and other mobility-on-demand services, coupled with transit, leads to reduced driving.

Price transportation – reward high occupancy vehicles

5. Pricing is a critical tool that can impact transportation usage. Integrating pricing strategies that reward high occupancy vehicles will encourage shared rides and reduce the burden placed on the transit system.

Work with Employers

6. How and when people commute to work can be influenced by employers. Employers should be provided with the tools and resources to encourage non-solo commutes. A number of policies and resources should be provided to employers including

a. Telework resources and training

b. Transit benefit ordinances and tools

c. Incentives to encourage non-solo commutes

d. On-site information for employees to choose the best way to travel


7. Continue to build out electric infrastructure and incentivize developers, employers, and even gas stations to include recharging facilities for electric vehicles.

8. Continue to expand tax incentives for the purchase of electric vehicles including in fleet operations.

Land-Use and Parking

9. Reduce parking limits and instead reward developers for integrating multi-modal transportation options such as carshare, bikeshare, transit, and other services that get drivers out of a car.

Work with the private sector

10. Work collaboratively with companies that can provide solutions to congestion and improved transportation. Create procurements that look to solve problems, not purchase products.

These 10 policies and solutions are common sense steps that any municipal governments can take to make an impact.