HOT Lanes and Equity: Challenging L.A.’ Transportation System

Los Angeles is known for three things: Hollywood, wealth—and insane traffic congestion.

L.A. is thus constantly working to devise strategies to decongest its transportation system. Last year, the city embarked on a one-year demonstration program, administered by Metro in conjunction with Caltrans and primarily funded through a $210 million grant from the US Department of Transportation. The program, Metro ExpressLanes, seeks to utilize congestion pricing to transform High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes to High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes. This means that lone drivers are now able to buy their way to the carpool lanes.

The program aims to convert 25 miles of existing carpool lanes on the 10 and 110 freeways in downtown Los Angeles into high occupancy toll lanes. According to City of Los Angeles officials, the program is geared towards improving traffic flow in the Los Angeles clogged freeway system and providing enhanced travel options.

Whenever I travel, I like to keep my planning eye open and on my Spring break trip to Southern California, I was introduced to the 110 and 10 freeway tolling program first hand. It costs about 25 cents to $1.40 a mile, depending on traffic and time of travel, to use the HOT lanes. The estimated average toll for a motorist is between $4 and $7 a trip, though it could be as high as $15.40. Anyone using these lanes without a FasTrak transponder risks a fine of at least $25. For one weekend, I experienced what those who can’t buy their way into these new lanes, popularly referred to as HOT lanes, go through on a daily basis. Hours of waiting while watching an almost empty lane beside me made me question the rationale behind HOT lanes.

A panel on transportation equity a week later, on the 6th April, 2013, hosted by the College of Design and Environment Students of Color (CEDSOC), reminded me of my L.A. experience and I began to wonder whether initiatives such as the Metro Express Lanes program truly meet equity standards.

So what is transportation equity?

Several transportation studies define equity as the fairness with which impacts—benefits or costs—are distributed. Transportation equity can be categorized into 3 main areas.

Horizontal equity is concerned with the distribution of impacts between individuals and groups that are considered equal in ability and need. This approach assumes equal individuals and groups should receive equal shares of resources, bear equal costs, and that transportation policies should not favor any individual or group over another.

Vertical Equity with respect to economic and social class assumes the distribution of impacts between individuals and groups that differ in abilities and needs. Transportation policies are equitable if they favor economically and socially disadvantaged groups, thus compensating for overall inequities.

Vertical equity with respect to mobility need and ability focuses on the distribution of impacts between groups that differ in terms of mobility ability, need and the extent to which transportation policies meet the need of travelers with mobility impairments.

At the CEDSOC panel, Joel Ramos, Senior Community planner at TransForm, an organization that advocates for sustainable transportation and smart land use, described transportation equity as transportation decisions that cater for accessibility, convenience, speed and affordability.

The question whether the HOT lines meet transportation equity becomes even more complex. Transportation researchers in support of HOT lanes argue that distribution of traffic through congestion pricing eventually leads to improved speed for everyone. Researchers arguing against HOT lanes, on the other hand, cite inequity based on income. This modal split is a compromise of mass transit and carpooling and spatial equity where programs may disadvantage certain parts of the city where HOT lanes apply or do not apply.

The L.A. program seeks to address income equity through issuing discount facilities to low-income households. In addition, some of the tolls’ income is reinvested to purchase extra passenger buses. Nevertheless, the use of discount facilities for low-income drivers does less to convince me that HOT lanes are a viable long-term solution to congestion and that the program does not disadvantage low-income households.

Evaluations on the San Diego’s I-15 HOT lanes suggest that users of the HOT lanes were more likely to have higher incomes than drivers in the regular lanes. For instance, drivers coming from households with annual incomes of $20,000 to $40,000 a year made up 3% of FasTrak users. Moreover, some researchers argue that those with the lowest income who might actually be priced out of HOT lanes are likely priced out of car ownership as well. They often rely on public transit and their travel times and options are even more limited, since the L.A HOT lanes utilize former HOV lanes previously made for buses as well as carpooling. In this case, the conversion of HOV lanes to HOT lanes significantly reduces the travel time for those using mass transit options who are likely low-income groups. Again, what if a higher number of drivers (both high and low-income) are able to access HOT lanes? Doesn’t that consequently slow traffic for carpoolers and mass transit, thus impeding transportation equity for low-income drivers and carpoolers?

Besides pricing out low-income drivers, the L.A. program is likely to negatively affect carpooling. Cities across the world have used carpool fast lanes as a means to decongest regular lanes, reduce travel time for travelers and green gas emissions. The conversion of HOV lanes to HOT lanes seems contradicts the existence of carpool lanes and is likely to negate some or all of the travel time advantages that would exist with HOV lanes, leaving no motivation for HOV lanes especially for those who can afford to buy their access to the HOT lanes.

This program assumes that distributing traffic in regular and HOT lanes will translate to reduced travel times for everyone. However, I believe that cities need to think of ways of decongesting traffic by addressing the core roots of congestion: the automobile. While I appreciate multiple approaches to transportation planning, a strategy that promotes more choices for private cars seems counterproductive. Instead, we should focus on improving the use of mass transit. Ultimately, this would discourage the use of private cars and reduce congestion without imposing unnecessary costs to travelers that hinders equity for all.

Keziah Mwelu is a first year master’s student in the Department of City and Regional Planning, UC Berkeley. She is an urban planner from Kenya interested in urban development policy, governance and equity. She can be reached at