Let's be honest: HOV lanes are a joke. A long, unfunny joke.

High-occupancy vehicle lanes are supposed to reduce traffic by encouraging carpooling. I wonder if any significant carpooling has ever been created by HOV lanes, but it really doesn't matter much because the HOV lanes, clogged with hybrid cars, are about as congested as the regular lanes.

Here's a suggestion: Kill the HOV lanes. Convert them to HOT lanes.

HOT stands for high-occupancy toll and it means you'd pay a fee to use the lane during rush hours.

I know. I know. You don't like the idea because it'd be cumbersome to go through a toll booth and feel around for your wallet. Beyond that, you don't want to pay a toll to use a road that you've already paid taxes to build.

But technology has answered the first objection. You may not even have to slow down to get in a HOT lane, thanks to scanners that would record your entry and deduct your account. License-plate cameras could track down scofflaws who wrongly used the lanes.

As for the philosophical objection, think of it this way: You'd not be paying to use the road. You can use the regular lanes for free any time. You'd be paying for the temporary right to escape traffic.

Wouldn't you be pleased to pay $10 for an express lane if you were running late to an important meeting? If I were in danger of missing my flight, I'd gladly pay $20 heck, $100 to get an open lane to LAX.

One of the biggest objections is that HOT lanes would quickly become Lexus lanes: The rich would think nothing of paying $20 to get an open lane in rush hour while the middle class was left to creep and beep. True, but the non-users of HOT lanes wouldn't be any worse off than they are now. Besides, the working class would like the option of using a fast lane on occasion. A single mom who worked late to close a deal would probably prefer to pay a $10 toll rather than a dollar-a-minute surcharge at the day care, which is an example used by a U.S. Department of Transportation official who a couple weeks ago touted such congestion pricing to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board in L.A.

A fancy HOT system could vary the toll in real time. The toll would spike up as demand for the HOT lane increased and go down as demand decreased, keeping the lane free-flowing at all times.

The beauty of the concept is that it employs the immutable law of supply and demand, pricing a scarce resource (in this case, an open lane) up or down, depending on demand.

Best of all, HOT lanes would do what HOV lanes have failed to do: Encourage motorists to drive at off times. Most people would consider driving to work earlier or later if they knew the HOT toll was $1 at those times. Let me ask: What incentives do the current HOV lanes give you to drive at an off time? The answer is none. Zero. Nada. They weren't designed to do that. That is their big flaw. They're a bad joke.

In any survey, local executives would name traffic as one of the biggest impediments to doing business in L.A. It would be a wonderful irony if a business technique using supply and demand to allocate a scarce resource were employed to help solve our traffic problem.

Charles Crumpley is editor of the Business Journal. He can be reached at ccrumpley@labusinessjournal.com .

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