Charles Crumpley's impassioned call to replace HOV lanes with HOT lanes ("Toll the Need for Speed," Nov. 5) brings to mind an old New Yorker cartoon where two scientists confront a chalkboard full of indecipherable equations over the caption, "Oh, if only it were so simple."

There's little argument that only a fraction of the vehicles in the HOV lanes at any given time represents true carpools in which the number of vehicles is actually reduced. Chances are, mom and the kids wouldn't be driving separately to school or day care. Also, allowing hybrids to use the HOV lanes was well-intentioned but misguided. With gasoline again approaching $4 per gallon, fuel efficiency needs little extra incentive.

So, the question is, would conversion of HOV to HOT actually relieve congestion in Los Angeles?

I think this conversation needs to be more nuanced. HOV lanes can and do motivate people to carpool when their trips and time frames begin and end somewhere near each other. They actually convey a benefit by allowing people to travel more quickly in exchange for taking an extra car or two off the road.

Lexus lane phenomenon

Furthermore, HOV lanes in Los Angeles are one of the Transportation Control Measures used to build the intricate web of strategies that keeps the region in compliance with air quality standards of the federal Clean Air Act. Before we opt for a wholesale changeover from HOV to HOT, we need to think long and hard about the possible effects on our compliance status that changing out would have. Whatever minor improvements in flow that might be achieved could be more than offset by possible sanctions, including loss of highway funds.

Although market forces can allocate scarce resources, it's hard to determine the value, and hence the cost, of marginal travel-time improvements. Certainly, single-occupancy drivers should have the flexibility to move into the HOV lane and be charged for the privilege, but absent a coordinated strategy to improve mobility in the long term, a simple conversion of HOV to HOT will not bring the benefits Crumpley is looking for and may, in fact, produce the Lexus lane phenomenon he opposes.

What I would favor is the development of a rational plan for congestion relief where HOT lanes are part of a management strategy that also includes full-scale congestion pricing, real public transit options, parking management, telecommuting and regional mobility improvements that will get the goods-movement traffic off the urban freeways. Longer-term land-use planning and a better jobs/housing balance are what are really needed.

If people are presented with a long-range solution that has some short-range elements they can see and believe in, they are more apt to support it and give it a chance. But we have a penchant for zeroing in on quick and easy fixes to long-simmering, complex problems and then being disappointed when they don't work. Who wouldn't prefer a magic pill to diet and exercise for losing weight? Unfortunately, when the quick fixes don't work, it's all too easy to throw up our hands and declare congestion "insoluble." This has the added downside of giving the political process the cover to do nothing of value.

As Los Angeles struggles to achieve an acceptable level of mobility, everything should be on the table. Building rail transit and adding highway capacity are costly and long-term solutions. To get people relief now, not in 10 years, there are many small traffic fixes that can grow into real congestion relief. The region's challenge will be to show some imagination in taking risks in congestion management. But this is also about managing expectations and letting people know that it will entail some sacrifice on everyone's part. Whether this will result in paying directly for highway access, higher costs for goods, reduced choices in lifestyle or increased travel time, if everyone commits to give a little, we can all gain a lot.

Meanwhile, if you really want to ride alone in the express lanes, maybe you should just buy a Prius.

Richard G. Little is the director of the Keston Institute for Public Finance and Infrastructure Policy at the University of Southern California.

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