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Are HOV lanes still useful on Greater Boston roads?

Chris DempseyAndy Laub


Chris Dempsey

Director, Transportation for Massachusetts; Brookline resident

Greater Boston has the worst rush-hour traffic congestion in the country. Our soul-crushing gridlock is holding back our regional economy and hurting our quality of life. Policymakers have neglected this problem for too long.

Fixing it is going to require using our roads more efficiently, and that’s where High Occupancy Lanes lanes come in.

The evidence is clear that HOV lanes are more effective than standard travel lanes at getting people where they need to go. Before the state Department of Transportation made the irresponsible (and likely illegal) decision last May to temporarily close the Interstate 93 inbound HOV lane from Medford to the Zakim Bridge, MassDOT’s own data showed that, at rush hour, the I-93 inbound HOV was moving 2,253 people per hour, while the adjacent standard travel lanes were moving just 1,492 people per hour.


Imagine if every lane were as efficient as an HOV lane — we would have less traffic, less air pollution, and less frustration for commuters. HOV lanes work because they provide people using the most space-efficient vehicles — buses, vans, carpools — a faster, more reliable, more appealing trip. With HOV lanes offering those advantages, ridership in those forms of transportation grows. This is why HOV lanes benefit even those driving in single-occupancy vehicles: by freeing up space on roads that would otherwise be crowded by even worse traffic.

In the last few years, area cities and towns have been leading the way on upgrading road space to prioritize travel efficiency. In Arlington, Boston, Cambridge, Everett, and Watertown, rush-hour buses have new dedicated lanes to speed up commutes. Results show bus ridership is up on some routes, which means fewer vehicles taking up space in the other lanes.

MassDOT should restore the HOV lane on I-93 southbound from Medford. Closing it has given bus riders and carpoolers lengthier commutes — which is exactly the wrong outcome when we are trying to make our roads more efficient for everybody. In fact, HOV lanes can and should be explored as options on additional roads experiencing chronic traffic congestion, whether that is the Massachusetts Turnpike, Route 1, Route 128, or other highways under MassDOT authority.


Frank Conte


Frank Conte

Wakefield resident, director of external relations for the Beacon Hill Institute

Of all the half-measures used to control congestion, high occupancy vehicle lanes are one of the major disappointments of our time. In our state, HOV lanes were introduced more than two decades ago to help mitigate the Big Dig’s effects on air quality and congestion. Today they are a relic of the past. Massachusetts would do well by eliminating them and trying something else.

The HOV lane was born as a collectivist aspiration to curb the perceived excess of individualism. But Americans never abandoned their right to ride alone abetted by technology-improved gasoline efficiency and comfort. In a recent Suffolk University poll, about 76 percent of Massachusetts residents said they drive alone to get to work or school. It is evident HOV lanes do not ease congestion: As everyone knows, traffic — a byproduct of strong economic growth — is worse overall today than before the Big Dig. The state reports a decline in emissions from 1990 to 2016 but does not mention HOV lanes as a contributing factor.


Today, finding oneself stuck in a general-purpose lane offers ample opportunity to glance over a couple of lanes and see an underused resource. Only about 9 percent of American workers carpool. And in Massachusetts, enforcing the two-person carpool limit seems practically non-existent. The state recently conceded that HOV lanes “do not necessarily provide sufficient travel time savings.”

Massachusetts doesn’t have many HOV lanes, and without such incentives as satellite parking lots, it’s unlikely they can be expanded anywhere else. Moreover, bus transit doesn’t generate enough traffic to maximize HOVs: that’s because unlike transit systems where buses are more prominent, the MBTA is rail and subway-centered.

Economists have long argued for congestion pricing as a solution to congestion, and converting HOVs into variable High-Occupancy Toll lanes (buses would ride for free) could help the problem. But despite the concrete incentives to change behavior, HOT’s raise concerns about equity.

Factoring in the current costs — tolls, gas taxes, and most importantly time — drivers discount the advertised benefits of hopping onto a bus or getting a lift in a carpool. Eliminating HOVs may be one way of giving them a break, at least temporarily.

This is not a scientific survey. Please only vote once.

As told to Globe correspondent John Laidler. To suggest a topic, please contact laidler@globe.com.