WatchSonoma Watch

Drivers frustrated by near-empty lanes

Car-pool lanes on Highway 101 in Santa Rosa Friday afternoon. (Crista Jeremiason / PD)

After years of Hwy. 101 widening, extra space often goes unused


By 5:30 a.m, there are already enough cars filling southbound Highway 101 toward Petaluma to make Gus Kouninos grateful for the new third lane running over the Cotati Grade.

But on his evening drive home, the Santa Rosa resident can only look at the new construction in frustration. The third lanes between Cotati and Petaluma are closed to solo drivers from 7 to 9 a.m. and 3 to 6:30 p.m. during the commute crunch.

“You’ve only got motorcycles and a select few who are able to use it,” said Kouninos, who works for a beverage company in Petaluma. “When you’re in traffic and you see that lane empty, you’re like, ‘Man that’s a third of the traffic that could be over there.’ ”

The exasperation is shared by many Sonoma County drivers who’ve endured traffic delays and detours during years of widening of Highway 101 only for the results to be off limits to them when the lanes are needed most.

But advocates of car-pool lanes maintain they’re a wise investment, especially for the time when growth and a revived economy add more vehicles to the road.

“People are quite right to ask is this the most efficient use of the lane,” said Elizabeth Deakin, a professor of city and regional planning at UC Berkeley. “They also ought to ask the question if it will be in five years.”

To date, however, Sonoma County workers haven’t exactly demonstrated a strong interest in the diamond lane.

Census figures showed 10 percent of them shared rides to work in 2010, down from 13 percent in 2000 and 1990.

In 1980, the first time the Census Bureau started tracking the number, 16 percent of local workers shared rides.

The decline mirrors a nationwide trend. According to census data, the percentage of Americans who commuted in a shared vehicle dropped in half between 1980 and 2010 despite the addition of billions of dollars of infrastructure to encourage them.

The slide is rooted in a multitude of factors, including the increased affordability of dependable used cars, said Alan Pisarski, a consultant who studies transportation.

At the same time, Americans’ work habits have changed with fewer workers sharing schedules, Pisarski said.

“It’s harder and harder to find someone who’s going where you’re going and going when you’re going,” he said.

Many of those who do share rides are family members who would do so regardless of enticements, he said.

But despite the downward trend, the investment in local car-pool lanes is continuing.

Later this year, Caltrans expects to open a third lane over the Wilfred Avenue interchange, closing the gap in what will be a continuous car-pool lane running from Windsor to Petaluma.

Crews also will begin work on projects south of Petaluma that will set the stage for future car-pool lanes to Novato, the last stages of the estimated $1 billion widening of the Highway 101 corridor between Sonoma and Marin counties.

Caltrans spokesman Robert Haus said the problem with car-pool lanes tends to be there are too few of them forming a fragmented network, not that there are too many.

Until 2009, carpoolers going through Marin County to San Francisco hit a gap in the HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) lane in San Rafael, the most populous part of Marin County, a major disincentive to organize rides, he said.

But as car-pool lanes grow to the point that a lane extends from Windsor to the Golden Gate Bridge, he’s confident it’s going be an increasingly attractive option.

“That is going to make a good difference,” he said.

Perhaps the most persuasive argument for pursuing car-pool lanes, however, may be one of sheer practicality.

There is no government mandate to build car-pool lanes, but the federal Clean Air Act makes it extremely difficult to add lanes to freeways in many areas without making them HOV, said Robert Poole, director of transportation policy for the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank.

Even those who may never deign to share a car with someone may benefit. HOV lanes tend to reduce lane changing — the real devil of traffic jams — as carpoolers stay in their lanes and single drivers have fewer options to change, said Michael Cassidy, a transportation engineering professor at UC Berkeley.

The calming effect can result in up to a 20 percent improvement in flow in neighboring lanes, said Cassidy who co-authored a 2009 paper on the topic.

“Even when a car-pool lane is about half-filled, the advantage that is brings thanks to reduced lane changing makes regular drivers better off than if the car-pool lane was turned over to regular traffic,” he said. “So many regular drivers are cursing the carpoolers, but they are mistaken. Their lives are better off because of them.”

Still, Sonoma County car-pool lanes appear to be running well below 50 percent of capacity, the threshold Cassidy uses for establishing when a HOV lane’s use becomes beneficial to drivers in other lanes.

A 2010 Caltrans study found that on a typical day nearly 4,000 vehicles used the northbound lanes of Highway 101 from Highway 12 to River Road during the peak time of 5 to 6 p.m.

About 450 of them were in the car-pool lane, accounting for less than a quarter of the lane’s vehicular capacity. Transportation officials consider a highway lane to be capable of carrying up to 2,000 vehicles an hour.

Some hope that new technology can give such numbers a jump. The Climate Protection Campaign, a Santa Rosa-based nonprofit, is working on an Internet app to allow people to exchange ride-sharing information on their smartphones and other devices.

The group has been working with students and staff members at Santa Rosa Junior College, which issued just five car-pool permits this year, despite offering extra parking for those sharing rides.

“Imagine if we could take 1 percent of cars off the road, that would have a huge impact not only on congestion but on greenhouse gas emissions,” said Ann Hancock, Climate Protection Campaign’s executive director.

News Researcher Teresa Meikle contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Sam Scott at 521-5431 or sam.scott@ pressdemocrat.com.

13 Responses to “Drivers frustrated by near-empty lanes”

  1. Money Grubber says:

    I saw a Sonoma County Sheriffs Deputy driving Southbound in the HOV lane yesterday. That is, ONE deputy alone in the car.

    Not racing to a dispatch. No red lights. No siren.

    Traffic was not at a standstill. The HOV lane was simply wide open yet within the restricted time frame of multiple passengers only.

    Just didn’t feel like obeying the same laws as the general public is required to do.

  2. Social Dis-Ease says:

    There we go with the green house gas crap again.
    The ‘global warming’ lie is the excuse being used to take away everything we hold dear;
    our property rights, our civil rights, our small business climate, inadvertantly the fiscal health of our communities as our ICLEI adherant local government goes along to get along with this huge green based orchestrated oppression that DELIBERATELY crashes our coffers.

    Your whole way of life will be ruined based on a contrived lie.
    Think that’s an exageration?
    Been on the fence, wondering if there’s any validity to this Agenda 21 stuff?
    Join us Tues, Feb. 14th @ 3:00 in front of S.R. City Hall as we demonstrate our resolve to simply create a public diologue on the ICLEI QUESTION.
    It is not about civil unrest.
    This will be an educactional opportunity for those seeking information.
    A support group for those who have been damaged by the over reaching reglatory climate which ICLEI provides. A chance to strengthen community with other response-able citizens.
    Time to stop being audience to YOUR MOVIE.

  3. Jim says:

    Funny the state spends billions on lanes that aren’t used and now wants to spend MORE money promoting the lanes that no one uses. It isn’t like people don’t use them because they don’t know, people don’t use them because work schedules differ and people CAN’T use them.

    What isn’t mentioned is another ridiculous state initiative that granted hybrid vehicles access to the HOV lanes. Think about it…a hybrid is MOST efficient in traffic, a gas engine vehicle is most efficient at freeway speeds. So what do the IDIOTS in Sacramento do??? Let hybrids drive at their LEAST efficient speed and gas vehicles do the same (idling in traffic). FREAKING MORONS!!!

    Now the various environmental groups and regulations force HOV lanes when no one uses them outside soccer moms. These lanes are a waste of money. How much pollution is created by the construction vehicles during construction? How much pollution is created by cars sitting in stop-and-go traffic??

    Just another example of Government WASTE, over-regulation and COMPLETE STUPIDITY.

  4. Phil Maher says:

    Why not just open up the HOV lanes during peak commute periods a couple days a week on a limited, trial basis? Observe and study the hell out of it. Let’s see what really happens. One thing to consider though is that the plan is to interconnect all these HOV lanes and then begin to charge for using them based off of where you enter and where you exit, so don’t hold your breath waiting for any practical and honest evaluation anytime soon.

    Think of it this way: when a doctor tells you your arteries are clogged, or even when you go to the supermarket and are sitting in a huge line, the solution is never to prescribe constricting them further or closing more registers. But these are Berkeley-trained urban planners, so they’re obviously operating with a set of beliefs that have nothing whatsoever to do with common sense and real world applications.

  5. Can It Be True says:

    Another bright idea from government that is a total failure. Why, because people prefer to drive their cars alone and get where they are going without stopping to drop people off.

    SMART if ever built, will fail by the same logic. These concepts are the dreams of dreamers spending millions of our tax monies on transportation whims.

  6. The Hammer says:

    If we all had to pay for it then we all should be able to use it. Not a select few. Discrimination, plain and simple.

  7. Social Dis-Ease says:

    More of the anti car, anti private property, anti small business, anti freedom ideology that is eroding our way of life.

    There’s a name for it…

  8. Canthisbe says:

    “Imagine if we could take 1 percent of cars off the road, that would have a huge impact not only on congestion but on greenhouse gas emissions,” said Ann Hancock, Climate Protection Campaign’s executive director.”
    Unless she has some factual basis for using a multiplier, one would assume that taking 1% of the cars off the road would have a one percent impact on congestion. Not what most people would consider a “huge” impact, if they could even notice it. Opening up the 3rd lane to all traffic would have a much greater impact on congestion.

  9. Graeme Wellington says:

    I say make it a toll road so you can pay a little bit – like 25 cents to use the lane. If that results in clogging the lanes, slowly raise the toll until you get the amount of traffic you want. At a certain price, you’ll get full usage and maximum revenue without gouging. Those who use it pay. Those who don’t, don’t have to.

    The thing is, our leaders need to think about the problem and try solutions and make adaptations and changes as you obtain more data. If one solution does not work, try another, then another, but do something. Doing nothing and accepting the problem is the worst possible decision, but it seems to be the only decision our leaders ever make.

    You put little sensors on the road and sell RFID placards or windshield stickers that are automatically debited. If you don’t pay the toll you get a ticket from a traffic cam. Legitimate revenue all around. Put the toll sensor in the traffic cam.

    Come on. It took me a few seconds to think of something. I may be completely wrong about this, but I at least am thinking of ideas and possible solutions. Have we just elected chowderheads all this time? Yes! I think so. Look at the results!

  10. BigDogatPlay says:

    Sonoma County actively resisted expanding the lane capacity on 101 for perhaps as long as 30 years. Now that the infrastructure is finally being brought forward we hear the typical banter of “join a carpool or ride a bus if you don’t like the traffic”.

    Don’t you think I would have done that years ago if my life and work schedule allowed for it?

    I know that when I moved from Marin to Petaluma almost 25 years ago the population explosion in SoCo had already reached the point where a third lane was required to bear the traffic load and maintain speed of advance at anything close to the limit at peak periods. The population of the county has grown more since, but it’s only within the past few years that we’ve seen the infrastructure begin to catch up.

    HOV lanes, which are paid for by 100% of the taxpayers but are only able to be used by a very small percentage of drivers, artificially reduce the number of available lanes at peak periods. In that respect adding the third lane has a net effect of zero in mitigating congestion at peak periods, save for the few who can or will carpool. And since there are not dedicated entrance and exit ramps in the center divide for the HOV lanes, drivers entering or exiting those lanes further congest traffic at peak periods. By that analysis the more correct solution should have been to build out to 3 lanes, plus a fourth HOV lane with dedicated center divide entrance and exit ramps, to better bear the traffic load at peak.

    The HOV lanes were forced into the project by funding requirements… build the HOV lanes or don’t get the funding. Pretty simple math since without the funding the additional lanes still would not be in place. However, I think the controlling agencies should re-consider the efficacy of the HOV lanes, based on the apparent under utilization and the obvious lack of mitigation at peak periods.

    Do the courageous thing SoCo, as Contra Costa County did on 580 between the Richmond Bridge and I-80. Sandblast those diamonds off the pavement and open the roadway to all.

  11. Patrick says:

    Get over it or get a carpool going. Anyone who thinks adding a person to your vehicle so you can use the HOV lane is impractical, is lazy and self centered. And probably the same person riding my rear bumper in the far right lane o matter the flow of traffic. I’m not in your hurry.

  12. RAW says:

    HOV lanes work great when you have hundreds or thousands of worker who work at or near the same location, make similar wages and live in the same neighborhoods. Sonoma County’s large employers have bailed on California so most people live and work far from each other, making car-pooling impractical. The third lane was bout 15 years too late. You have to love the planning. Hurry up and build the train so we can ease the burden on the empty lane. How can SMART be any different? This article shows it in living color. No need for a commuter train, it won’t work any better than the HOV lane.

  13. Skippy says:

    OCCUPY THE 101! I love being told by Big Govt professors from Berkeley that I am getting traffic relief by crawling next to an empty lane. Who am I gonna believe; an entitled elitist with a vested interest in making my commute miserable and unpredictable or my own lying eyes?
    The 1% in their Pius Prius’ get hundreds of millions spent on their toy car hobby lane and the other 99% of us get to pay for it.
    Sustainability grads without any commercially relevent skills get to scold me about the massive AGW hoax that pays their salaries while they ignore the real inconvenience and expense they cause normal working folks.
    Ms. Hancock is getting her wish about removing cars from the road with every adjustment in the unemployment numbers.
    Another term for The Great Failure Obama and no-one will need to commute as they will all be out of work.
    Take back the lanes, end the discrimination, OCCUPY the 101!