Socialist Lanes or Congestion Pricing for California?

Socialist Lanes or Congestion Pricing for California?

A Toyota Prius with a California "clean air vehicle" sticker drives in the carpool lane on highway 101 in San Rafael, Calif., on May 6, 2011. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

John Seiler

John Seiler

4/4/2024

Updated: 4/4/2024

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Commentary
The mass-production of inexpensive Model T’s by Henry Ford starting in 1908 put first America, then the world on wheels. People no longer were bound by location, or taking mass transport such as trains or ships, but enjoyed the freedom of going wherever they wanted.
Family driving in a Ford Model T on a rural road, circa 1915. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Family driving in a Ford Model T on a rural road, circa 1915. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Government ever since have been seeking to limit that liberty. One of the worst is High-Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes, also called commuter or diamond lanes in California. I’ve spent three decades calling them “socialist lanes,” but it hasn’t caught on.
They’re socialist because they push conformity on drivers, specifically making them include two or three occupants instead of one. In Southern California, the lanes are in “full-time” operation, meaning all seven days. Meanwhile, in Northern California they’re in “part-time” operation, meaning they’re in force only during the “peak” hours of 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays. And any vehicles can use the lanes on Saturdays and Sundays.
Special exemptions are also made for motorcycles and favored vehicles, such as electric, hydrogen, or hybrid cars, which receive a special “clean air” sticker to slap on their back bumpers.
I’ve also known people who just ignore the rules and take the occasional $490 fine, figuring the savings in time is worth it. But only rich people can afford that.
The socialist element comes in because the key to socialism is manipulating private behavior according to socialist principles, whether through the direct use of a government system, such as a road, or with heavy regulations on the private sector.

Zil Lanes

California’s HOV lanes also resemble the infamous “Zil lanes” in the middle of Moscow highways reserved for the Soviet elite. The Zil was the top Soviet limousine of the day.
A visiter drinks wine near a Soviet luxury car ZIL-150 belonging to Ukrainian former Communist Party leader Volodymyr Sherbitsky at the Retro and Exotic Motor Show in Kiev on April 16, 2010. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images)

A visiter drinks wine near a Soviet luxury car ZIL-150 belonging to Ukrainian former Communist Party leader Volodymyr Sherbitsky at the Retro and Exotic Motor Show in Kiev on April 16, 2010. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images)

The BBC described the lanes: “The two main ones were on Leninsky Prospekt, on the way to the government airport at Vnukovo, and on Kutuzovsky Prospekt, the route to the grand dachas—country houses—reserved for the very top of the party leadership. ...
“These ran straight down the middle of the giant highways, in the place of central reservations, and were only for the use of emergency vehicles and the highest echelons of the Soviet leadership in their grand but ageing Zil and Chaika limousines. ...
“The one to Vnukovo stopped operating when the airport lost its status. But the lane on Kutuzovsky Prospekt survives to this day.
“Every evening, as Muscovites sit stuck in some of the worst traffic jams in the world, they can watch their leaders sweep past to their dachas.
“The Zil and Chaika limousines are gone, replaced by black high-powered top-end German cars with flashing blue lights on top, and accompanied by one of the most hated sounds in Moscow—the squawking migalki, the peculiarly aggressive sirens fitted to Russian official cars.”
It’s the same concept: Certain favored people get quick and full access to the roads, while everybody else—the proletariat in Moscow, gas-car drivers in California—gets only partial access.

Limiting Socialism

Things now could be changing a little. The special clean-air stickers are scheduled to expire on Sept. 25, 2025 on the more than 400,000 cars now sporting them. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, it would take both the state Legislature and the U.S. Congress to pass laws extending the sticker program.
That seems unlikely with Republicans controlling the U.S. House of Representatives—also if they control either the House or Senate, or both, after the November election.
In my experience driving around Southern California, the socialist lanes often are just as crowded as the regular lanes. If the sticker cars are booted from those lanes, cars might flow more freely, advancing the original intention of encouraging people to ride together, reducing the overall number of vehicles on the road, not just in the diamond lanes.
Adding the zero-emission cars to the diamond lanes was a typical government mistake of trying to do two things at once. If encouraging commuting cut the number of cars on the road, therefore cutting emissions, the thinking went, why not directly cut emissions by giving advantages to ZEVs? The result has not been good.

Congestion Pricing

With anti-smog regulations already reducing vehicle emissions close to zero compared to 1960s levels, the emphasis ought to be on keeping the traffic flowing freely. Doing so actually would be a help to people. Southern California can’t build the roads much wider. It’s hard to see the 405 or 5 expanding further.
The solution is more congestion pricing, as already exists for the toll roads, which I use a couple times a month. Toll prices rise as more cars enter the system. That encourages people who don’t need immediate access, such as housewives going shopping, to wait until a cheaper time.
Such a system would mean making all major roads toll roads. There would be resistance. Civil libertarians would say the use of the toll transponders would increase the power of the Surveillance State. There are two responses to that. One is people concerned about being spied on could take alternative roads. The second is nowadays there are cameras everywhere anyway, easily able to capture and record license plates, and our iPhones track us wherever we go.
The best example for congestion pricing is Singapore, whose system began in 1975 and currently is called the Electronic Road Pricing system. The country’s Ministry of Transport explained in 2022: “ERP rates are determined based on traffic conditions. The optimal traffic speed range is 45 - 65 km/h on expressways and 20 - 30 km/h on arterial roads. If traffic speeds rise above 65 km/h on expressways and 30 km/h on roads, ERP charges at that gantry will be reduced. Conversely, ERP rates will be increased if traffic moves slower than 45 km/h on expressways and 20 km/h on roads. ...
“All in all, the ERP system is an effective traffic speed booster to keep traffic on our roads flowing smoothly. Data indicate that speeds have generally improved when ERP rates are increased, and vice versa. Without the ERP, traffic will not be as smooth.”

Conclusion: Dysfunctional California

Singapore enjoys one of the world’s most efficient governments, while California suffers one of the most sclerotic. Instead of wasting billions on the socialist-lane schemes, or for that matter the high-speed rail boondoggle, setting up congestion pricing would have made a lot more sense—and might have reduced greenhouse gases more.
But this is California. Previous generations of politicians, Democrat and Republican, sharply reduced tailpipe emissions to cut smog. Today’s politicians only impose unworkable policies, such as banning all gas-powered cars by 2035. Such policies wisp away like the black smoke from the tailpipe of a classic 1957 Chevy.
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John Seiler

John Seiler

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John Seiler is a veteran California opinion writer. Mr. Seiler has written editorials for The Orange County Register for almost 30 years. He is a U.S. Army veteran and former press secretary for California state Sen. John Moorlach. He blogs at JohnSeiler.Substack.com and his email is writejohnseiler@gmail.com

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