Opinion Pieces: Time to be innovative with freeway and toll roads

Opinion Pieces: since 2007, Prof. David Hensher has written an opinion column in the Australasian Bus and Coach magazine, where he monthly discusses a lot of different transport-related hot topics. In this section we are revisiting these columns.

April 2008

One of the topics in any discussion about ‘what to do with growing traffic congestion and the dominating role of the car’ is to find ways by which we can still allow car users to travel without incurring any extra costs, while providing opportunities for car users who are willing to pay more to save time. Since buses also use roads, then there may be real cost-effective opportunities that enable buses to be the beneficiary of any innovative car strategies. There is one which has been staring at us for a long time – the HOT (high occupancy tolled) lanes for high valued car trips and buses.

This is how it might work. Let us use the M4 in Sydney as an example and assume that we are able to provide three lanes in each direction (at present there is a mix of two and three lanes in each direction). The inner lane would become the HOT lane so that the inner and outer lanes are available for entry and exit from the road. Some investment would be required to move the other two lanes slightly to the left and right respectively, to enable a distinctive separator for the HOT lane. The rule of use of this HOT lane would be based on a distance-based charge (or even a fixed premium toll) for car users willing to pay a greater amount to have a higher guarantee of travel time savings (essentially buying time savings and travel time reliability or predictability). The buses would use this lane as well and be exempt from the tolls. Importantly the toll level must be varied as evidence of traffic build up occurs in the HOT lane (as is done in Southern California for cars), so as to deliver target travel times.

In Southern California, the HOT lanes are the innermost lane (i.e., the one by the median). The have limited access and egress points which also helps to control the volumes of traffic. There is an exit/entrance about every three regular exits/entrances to the freeway, so that a vehicle that wishes to use the HOT lanes must anticipate its exit and get off in plenty of time to transition across the remaining lanes to exit. This should work well with a 6-lane freeway.

This idea may sound like bus lanes; however it is different in that we have a way forward of funding the initiative through the differential between the baseline toll on other lanes on a tollroad such as the M4 and the premium toll for cars. We would advise car users that the increment in toll that delivers a faster trip will be used to reinvest back in delivering more HOT lanes that can also benefit public transport. No more will we see cars users complaining about the empty capacity of a red-painted bus lane, for they can use the HOT lane with buses without impeding travel times of both modes, as long as car users are willing to pay a premium in toll.

Strategic thinkers would surely see this as having great merit.

Food for thought

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