Many air travelers in the United States gladly pay extra - sometimes a lot extra - to ride in first class rather than coach. Up front, they enjoy roomier seats, faster boarding, and free drinks. And now the pay-to-be-pampered idea has come to America’s interstate highways as well.
Many of these high-speed roads already have special, uncrowded HOV or high-occupancy-vehicle lanes. Only cars carrying two or more, or sometimes three or more, people can use them. The idea is that these less-crowded HOV lanes will entice other drivers to join a car pool so that they, too, can enjoy life in the fast lane.
But experience has shown that most lone drivers just won’t give up their cars. And they’re getting angrier and angrier at the lucky drivers zipping along in the HOV lanes. So to appease them, ease traffic congestion in the regular lanes, and create a new revenue source, many states have embraced a concept called “HOT lanes.”
“HOT” stands for “high-occupancy toll,” and here’s how it works:
As in HOV lanes, drivers of cars with multiple occupants pay little or nothing to zip along in the HOT lanes. But for a steep toll, drivers with no one else in their car can use them, too. Like first-class airplane passengers, many lone drivers say they’ll happily pay the charge just to cut some time and hassles from their commutes.
Virginia, Georgia, and California are among the states building HOT lanes alongside existing superhighways. They argue that the extra money single drivers kick in for access to the HOT lanes will help pay for other transportation improvements, such as light-rail lines.
But what if so many lone drivers jump at this chance that HOT lanes become just as jammed and slow-moving as regular ones?
American capitalism has the answer. If single-occupancy cars start plugging up the HOT lanes, states plan to just keep raising their tolls. Then, presumably, enough drivers will slink back to the equivalent of the coach section of the road, enabling traffic in the HOT lanes to move briskly again.