Bill Hildebrand is a battle-scarred veteran of perhaps the most famous commuter controversy in California freeway history, one that some fear could be echoed on the heavily congested Ventura Freeway.
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 Southern California alone, the special lanes have appeared on the Costa Mesa and Riverside freeways in Orange County, and the Century Freeway, like a new freeway in Arizona, is being built from scratch with a car-pool lane already incorporated.
Caltrans now is proposing to install a car-pool lane on several more freeways, including the eastbound Ventura Freeway between Topanga Canyon Boulevard and the Hollywood Freeway. But the Ventura Freeway plan has drawn heavy criticism from some local legislators and residents, who say commuter lanes cause accident rates to jump and unfairly punish those who cannot car-pool.
A 68-member advisory committee formed by Caltrans is scheduled to vote Feb. 19 on whether the new eastbound lane should be restricted to car pools and buses or open to all vehicles. Caltrans officials have said they will be bound by the vote.
Assemblyman Tom McClintock (R--Thousand Oaks) is so upset about the proposed lane 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.
McClintock wants the new Ventura Freeway lane, which would be created by narrowing existing lanes from 12 feet to 11 and using the median strip, to be open to all traffic.
Special Lanes First Appeared in 1939
The idea of giving preferential treatment to multi-occupant 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- to mid-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 employers and developers concerned that congested freeways will 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.
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 increasing.
Be physically separated from adjacent lanes, where possible.
Few car-pool lanes meet all these criteria.
For example, the car-pool lane on Interstate 93 in downtown Boston utilizes space taken away from regular traffic.