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FREEWAY FAST TRACK : Car-Pool Lanes, Despite Some Failures, Are in Motorists' Future

February 08, 1987|JEFFREY A. PERLMAN | Times Urban Affairs Writer

Bill Hildebrand is a battle-scarred veteran of perhaps the most infamous commute controversy in California freeway history.

Hildebrand, who was living in South Gate and commuting to West Los Angeles, remembers spending hours stuck in traffic on the Santa Monica Freeway during the ill-fated 1976 Diamond Lane car-pool experiment. The ordeal, he recalls, left him "frustrated and angry."

But now, whenever he can find a co-worker who is willing, Hildebrand car-pools from his home in Diamond Bar to his job at Pacific Mutual Life Insurance Co. in Newport Beach, using the year-old commuter lane on the Costa Mesa Freeway. "The trip used to take an hour and a half to two hours," said the 30-year-old policy services manager. "When we use the commuter lane, we save 20 to 40 minutes, which is nice . . . . I think the commuter lanes are a good idea."

Transportation experts agree that the Santa Monica Freeway Diamond Lane experiment was a disaster. Although many people used the commuter lane, which was converted from a general-purpose lane, overall freeway congestion actually worsened and the accident rate soared more than 200%. After five months, citing an adverse environmental ruling in federal court and public outrage, the state ended the experiment.

Ten years later, there are still no car-pool lanes on the Santa Monica Freeway. But in other traffic-choked corridors throughout the United States, they are becoming increasingly familiar sights on freeways and major surface streets, even as freeway construction is slowed.

In the Los Angeles basin alone, the special lanes have already appeared on both the Costa Mesa Freeway and eastbound on the Riverside Freeway, and the California Department of Transportation is planning to install them soon on portions of the Ventura, San Diego and Orange freeways. The Century Freeway in Los Angeles County, like a new freeway in Arizona, is being built from scratch with a car-pool lane already attached. The idea of giving preferential treatment to multioccupant vehicles is hardly new. According to one report, the practice began in 1939, when a lane was reserved for buses on North Sheridan Road in Chicago. Similar lanes were established in several cities between 1948 and 1968, but car pools and van pools were not included until 1971, when they were allowed to enter a lane previously restricted to buses on the toll plaza of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

Influenced by the energy crisis in the early 1970s, state and federal officials began promoting commuter lanes as a way to reduce both fuel consumption and exhaust emissions. The current "boomlet" in construction of such lanes, says Peter B. Giles, president of the Santa Clara County Manufacturing Group, owes its start to concern by employers and developers that congested freeways would limit economic growth and hinder the flow of workers from their homes to urban centers. The primary goal has shifted, he said, from saving energy to preserving mobility.

But while car-pool lanes are welcomed in some areas, such as San Jose and Seattle, they have drawn opposition in other places, such as the San Fernando and Conejo valleys, and Orange County. Indeed, Assemblyman Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks) is so upset about Caltrans' plans to install a commuter lane on the Ventura Freeway that he has introduced a bill that would ban such lanes in California. McClintock said his intent is to provoke a legislative debate in Sacramento about the merits of the special lanes. "I'm not convinced there's enough scientific evidence to prove that they're worthwhile," he said.

Some researchers disagree. Frank Southworth of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and Genevieve Giuliano of the University of California's Institute of Transportation Studies insist that most commuter lanes work well--as long as they meet certain criteria. Among other requirements, they said, the lanes should:

- Serve suburban commuters who must reach a dense urban center.

- Not punish drivers by taking a lane away from regular traffic.

- Serve areas where average commute times have been steadily deteriorating.

- Where possible, be physically separated from adjacent lanes.

Few car-pool lanes meet all of these criteria.

For example, the car-pool lane on Interstate 93 in downtown Boston utilizes space taken away from regular traffic.

Barriers Not Utilized

The car-pool lanes on both the Riverside and Costa Mesa freeways involve commutes to job sites spread along the entire route rather than centrally located work destinations, which makes it more difficult to match commuters who want to share rides. And neither project utilizes barriers, which has resulted in strong criticism from a small but vocal Orange County-based group, Drivers for Highway Safety.

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