Has Carpooling Failed?

You know the routine. You could be on the Ventura Freeway in Los Angeles, or the Long Island Expressway in New York, or on countless commuter corridors in between, but the bottom line is the same.

It's hot. You're sitting in rush-hour traffic. And next to you the HOV lane — the High-Occupancy Vehicle lane reserved for cars with two or more people — is all but empty.

You could be whizzing by, if only you had a companion with whom to carpool. Clogged cities wish you did. But Americans don't. In the 2000 U.S. Census, 75.6 percent of all commuters said they drive alone.

"I like the flexibility of being able to come and go as I please," said Bill Grantham, filling up at a Los Angeles gas station.

"It's more convenient for me when I'm alone," said Arsine Yedigaryan, who pulled in a few minutes later.

In the last two decades the number of commuters who drive has climbed steadily, from 81 million in 1980 to 113 million in 2000.

In the same period, the number who carpooled dropped, from 19 million to 15.6 million.

The problem is that traffic patterns and work patterns do not mesh. To cite a few reasons:

Jobs are increasingly scattered across the suburbs. Only a minority of Americans converge on central business areas in downtowns. People work longer and less regular hours. If the boss asks you to stay late, it's hard to say, "Sorry, my carpool's leaving."

People are busy. Most trips are not, in fact, to or from work. Instead, drivers make a myriad of side trips, dropping off kids or picking up groceries.

"It's very difficult to find a clone or another person who leaves the same time that you leave and returns home at the same time," says Mantill Williams of the American Automobile Association. "Unfortunately, in this day and age, the demands of our jobs require that we might have to come in early one day, stay late another, and be very flexible."

What to Do With the Old HOV Lane?

So if carpooling is a nonstarter, what do you do about all those dollars states have spent trying to promote it?

San Diego turned one underused HOV lane into an HOT — High Occupancy Toll — lane, instead of simply High Occupancy Vehicle.

On Interstate 805, the rules were changed so that solo drivers could use the express lanes if they paid with an electronic tag (known as Express Pass, EZ-Pass or E-Pass in different regions). The amount of the toll varies with the time of day and the amount of traffic.

"For a fee, I can use that and get to my destination when I want to," says Mary Peters, head of the Federal Highway Administration. "I think that's a good method to help even out that flow of traffic a little bit."

Every little bit helps. The census shows the average commute takes 15 percent more time than it did a decade ago.

"Americans may be in love with their cars," says AAA's Williams, "but they are not in love with traffic."