I Really Hate Commuter Lanes!

(This article originally appeared in the Summer 2001 issue of Sport Z magazine.)

Edward B. Driscoll, Jr. is a San Jose-based journalist who writes on a variety of topics, especially technology, design, and home electronics for numerous magazines, including recent contributions to National Review Online's Financial Section during its startup phase. Visit his website at www.eddriscoll.com.

Reshaping Human Behavior

Let me try and explain. California is the very home of car culture. Californians love cars. They customize them, give them personalized license plates, soup them up, and love to drive them. They make films about them — Thunder Road, Vanishing Point, American Graffiti. The California myth is all about freedom. About doing your own thing, maaaaaan. It’s all about… GEEZ! WATCH WHERE YOU’RE GOING, LADY!! Sorry about that. There’s nothing like cruising along at 68 miles an hour, and having some hulking Dodge minivan pull into the commuter lane doing an anemic 40 miles an hour. Excuse me while I slam on the breaks, OK??

Where was I? Oh yeah, the California myth is all about freedom. But as usual, it comes up against the California bureaucracy, which has a collective Olympic gold medal in taking freedoms away from individuals.

And a silver in trying to reshape human behavior. Governments have been trying to do that for decades, invariably with disastrous results. Prohibition didn’t work. And Californians talk big against social legislation. But take away their ability to drive their cars at will, and they’re passive as sheep. Seatbelt laws? Yawn. Speed limits that would choke an ant? Sounds good to me!

Civil Rights for Pets

Of course, to the average person, “government” in the U.S. means “elected officials”. But commuter lanes weren’t the result of elected officials. They were the result of faceless bureaucrats in Caltrans, the California Department of Transportation. As Joan Didion describes in her book The White Album, Caltrans introduced commuter lanes in the late 1970s to initially turn the 240,000 cars that traverse the Santa Monica freeway every day into 232,000. Naturally, after screwing up that freeway, Caltrans spent an initial 42 million dollars of taxpayer money to begin the initial screwing of the rest of the state’s freeways.

And for that money, what did we get? The main results from commuter lanes are to make the people driving in them feel oh so superior to the single drivers to their right; and to make the people driving alone feel like worthless worms, stuck in traffic thick with constipation, unable to move, while a handful of cars scream past them.

Whoops! I’ll be right back — I’ve got to keep my eyes on the road. Hey, who’s that in front of me? Some guy with an inflatable doll in his passenger seat. I’m sure the cops will bust him soon. And who do the cops have pulled over on the side of the road? A single pregnant woman, caught driving in the commuter lane.

So here’s a question? If the California courts have ruled that a woman pregnant with child does not count as two different people in the car pool lane, what does that do to the pro-life arguments? On the other hand, if the animal rights folks have their way in demanding civil rights for pets, I wonder if taking Willie, my golden retriever, in the car will count as a second person?

Delicious Irony

By the way, I’m glad you’re riding with me. Most commuter lanes allow a car with two people to use them. But there are a few stretches, such as Route 101 in Emmeryville, near San Francisco, that switches from two people to three people for a brief stretch. Bet that makes a few bucks for the Highway Patrol!

Once California screwed up its highways with commuter lanes, most states followed suit, because, hey, if it’s from California, it must be good (of course, Hollywood movies disprove that myth on a daily basis). Diamond lanes continue to dot California; continue to choke rush hour.

But there may be hope. Ironically, by the late 1990s, New Jersey (New Jersey!) eliminated virtually all of their commuter lanes. Why? Because they figured out that… They… Don’t… Work!

How does that feel Caltrans? All you oh so hip Californians? How does it feel to be showed up, by that elegant, cutting-edge state, New Jersey! The irony is simply delicious.

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