When Ontario introduced the high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes in 2005 on highways 403 and 404, the reasoning was to encourage carpooling, reduce congestion and reduce emissions. The gist of the HOV lane is that instead of everyone driving around in a car all for themselves, drivers should buddy up with coworkers or friends and commute to the big city or a workplace together.
In theory, this leads to fewer cars on the road, which has significant benefits: less traffic and fewer emissions. According to Statistics Canada census data from 2016, carpooling made up a decent chunk (anywhere between 11 to 14 per cent) of commuters using sustainable transportation methods, suggesting it positively impacted the environment.
It must have been viewed as a moderate success, as HOV lanes eventually expanded to include more highways in the province. Some vehicles even received special treatment, as they met some of the goals of the HOV lanes, like reducing emissions.
Motorcycles and electric vehicles sporting a green plate could access the lanes without additional passengers, which seemed fair considering they were also contributing to the reduced emissions, and the HOV lanes weren’t overly congested, offering the bandwidth to accommodate these vehicles.
The benefits of carpooling are huge. Beyond taking a car off the road and cutting down emissions and traffic, research shows that commuting with someone can reduce stress levels.
Naturally, these lanes are only effective if used properly. I’ve known people to check their Waze or traffic monitoring apps to see if there’s any enforcement along HOV routes. Those willing to risk the penalties will then jump into the HOV lanes without any passengers to take advantage of the less congested lane.
Get caught in the HOV lane when you’re not supposed to, and you'll face a fine of $110 and three demerit points. If you can afford the tickets, you only need to worry about the demerit points - you get a warning letter after accumulating six points, and a sternly worded letter after nine. At 15 points, your license gets suspended for 30 days. Demerit points stay on your record for two years from the offence date, so if you commit zero other traffic violations, you can get caught driving in the HOV lane about five times every two years before needing to worry.
The lengths and justifications people go to save time on their commute are incredible and point to issues with city planning and better transit options. Instead, Ontario is expanding access to the HOV lanes to drivers who can afford to bypass traffic.
A few years ago, the Ministry of Transport introduced the High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lane permit trial program. Simply put, it offers drivers the chance to pay to use the HOV lanes on the QEW, 410 and 403. The trial term is three months long, costing $60 per month or $180 total, with up to 1,350 permits sold during each term. You can get the permit through an online draw or lottery, but once you get one, you can automatically renew it twice before needing to re-enter the draw.
Much like my concerns about speed cameras impacting less affluent motorists, it feels like Ontario is ignoring the initial benefits of the HOV lane program and just catering to wealthy commuters.
The program itself points out a few benefits including “optimizing traffic flow and maximizing the number of users in the lanes,” “improved air quality and greater roadway efficiency,” and “improved and more reliable travel times for paying users of the HOT lanes.”
Not to mention, “non-tax revenues generated by HOT lane permit fees are used to support provincial investments in services Ontarians rely on, such as transportation infrastructure.” I’m not naive enough to take that last point at face value.
However, the rest of the points sound fair. The HOT user gets out of the general-use lanes and into the HOV lanes, which have the bandwidth to accommodate more vehicles. This should help improve the traffic flow of both general lanes and HOV lanes. In dense traffic, it could lead to less idling and result in fewer emissions.
In reality, it’s at odds with the original goal of HOV lanes. The HOT doesn’t promote carpooling, and it doesn't take cars off the road to reduce traffic, emissions or road wear. All it does is give the already pricey 407 (where one can spend $50 alone on a one-way trip) competition.
Inflation is hitting hard. The costs associated with motoring are constantly increasing, with higher fuel bills, the pricey new and used vehicle market, and rising insurance premiums. It seems counterintuitive to give drivers another thing to spend money on and preys on the psychological concerns of drivers about being late to work or being stressed out in traffic.
In my experience, the commute is always smoother when I have others in the car and have access to the HOV lanes rather than another expense on my monthly bills.
Sami Haj-Assaad is an award-winning automotive journalist from Toronto. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @Sami_HA.
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