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Public roads as a needs based service? It’s HOT

What’s a HOT lane?
High Occupancy Toll lanes (HOT) are popular with transit authority officials as a tactic to relieve congestion on our public roadways; at least that’s how it’s explained to the public. Just look at this growing list of toll roads. The concept is that a designated lane is equipped with electronic detection devices that can track a motorist’s movement in the lane. Whereas a traditional High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lane is free for vehicles with more than one passenger, the HOT lanes require a toll for single or double occupant vehicles.

The selling proposition to the public is “guaranteed trip times.” By using variable tolls based on the amount of traffic in the lane, authorities can game the amount of cars in the lane and thus guarantee it continues to move above the speeds of the non toll lanes.  Planners say this gives everyone a chance to use the lane and a faster ride when they need it. Opponents say that it creates a lane for the wealthy (“Lexus lane”) and that they shouldn’t have to pay for a lane already paved with tax payer dollars.

Planners have inadvertently created a needs based service.
Let’s be honest. HOT lanes are creative way to raise revenue for the government piggy bank. It’s not a new tax per say because it’s an optional fee based on usage. I’m not against the government collecting money because I enjoy and benefit from many of the services it provides to me.

But what authorities have created with HOT lanes is a needs based service. I define a needs based service as something that people need to solve a problem in their lives at a specific point in time.  It’s something that people will pay a premium to receive to solve their problem quicker than they could otherwise.

Here are some common examples:

  • Overnight shipping – You know, when you forget that valentine’s present for your significant other and need it sent out yesterday.
  • Gift wrapping – For when you want to send a special gift to someone who is not with you. Having it gift wrapped when it arrives adds a nice touch.
  • Custom logos on business products – You can certainly buy the products without your brand or affiliation. Adding the logo is something you’ll pay extra to receive.

Now we have variable based toll lanes that are available, at a price, to save commuters a few minutes while getting from point A to point B.  When you are late for an appointment or meeting and can’t wait through the usual traffic jam it becomes a solution to a need.

Is it wrong to repurpose a public road as a toll lane?
Toll roads aren’t new. They’re all over the country. Does it matter if a road was built with the agreement that a toll fund would pay for the construction versus a road that is converted to tolls after it’s built with general tax dollars? Is it right to for taxpayers to pay twice to receive the benefits of a government service? These are great questions and worthy of healthy debate.

You may have guessed that my commute is impacted by a HOT lane.
I’m noodling these thoughts because I’m watching and using a HOT lane each day during my commute to work.  I have not paid to use the lane yet, and most of my fellow commuters have not either. In fact what’s happened is that the general purpose lanes have more traffic and the HOT lanes are generally empty. The lack of vehicles in the HOT lane was so far under estimates that officials quickly reduced the amount of the toll in an effort to get more commuters in the lane.

Is this the answer to large congestion problems? Not from what I’ve observed. Many people refuse to use pay the toll to enter the HOT lanes out of principal that it doesn’t have equal access to everyone.  As a result, the lanes and have created new traffic issues on surface streets as commuters look to avoid the backup in the general purpose lanes on the interstate. Bottom line is that the lanes may be helping the few, but they’ve made the commute longer for most people.

As a marketer, I love the idea of needs based services.
What marketer doesn’t like premium services? They are highly profitable. Customers respect and value needs based services also. They use it when they need it and are willing (maybe not happy about it) to pay extra to get it.

But a HOT lane is having a tough time gaining the acceptance from most of the public. I wonder if the negative reaction from many people is because the idea is new and represents change? If the lane was built with the purpose of functioning as a HOT lane from the outset and funded by the tolls would it thought of differently? Will negative perception to the lane fade with time?

Transit authority planners continue to push this idea as a solution for transit issues. Since the majority of public reaction is negative, someone needs to ask if there is a better way. But with a revenue stream attached to them, HOT lanes will be a difficult thing for transit authorities to let go.

Our definition of ‘normal’ for transportation options may be changing before our eyes. What do you think?