Try to recall the last time you were stuck in L.A. traffic — not hard, I know. Reminisce on the blissful view of glaring red brake lights and miles of gridlock speckled with the occasional rabid driver muscling into your lane. Now remember that cheeky yellow sticker snickering at you as the tail of some Toyota Prius speeds gleefully toward campus in the carpool lane. You feel a bitterness toward the Prius and other carpool-approved vehicles as you realize that they will get to class on time and you will not.
But perhaps you should consider investing in such a car. On Aug. 30, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed Measure SB 535, which permits up to 40,000 more high-efficiency, alternative-fuel vehicles single-occupant access to carpool lanes. Despite the knee-jerk reaction that allowing certain drivers to cruise the carpool lane all by their lonesome defeats the lane’s purpose, this is actually a progressive and environmentally friendly move.
Solo-access usage for electric vehicles was set to expire in January 2011, but this bill and another extended the privilege until January 2015. The yellow sticker advantage for hybrids was also set to end in January 2011, but the termination date has been pushed back to June 2011 to allow drivers the opportunity to upgrade to more fuel-efficient vehicles that meet the new standards.
All-electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids and hydrogen fuel cell cars have been granted carpool access unfettered by passenger requirements until 2015. Top-of-the-line plug-ins such as the extended-range electric Chevrolet Volt must wait until 2012 for the perk, but all-electric cars such as the up-and-coming Nissan Leaf are immediately eligible.
Though some Southern Californians object to the measure, — their minds on rush hour and an increased freeway bottleneck, — it should actually prove reasonably successful with negligible traffic effects, according to data from the end of the 2007 extension. Our current state of driving-related affairs leaves much to be desired: As gas prices have plunged to about $3, down from a record-breaking $4 in 2007, demand for alternative-fuel vehicles has declined as well. The new extensions are a tantalizing incentive for drivers to transition from traditional gas-guzzling vehicles to socially conscious, eco-friendly rides.
With several leading manufacturers sporting green vehicles that will land in U.S. markets within the next 18 months, SB 535 can jumpstart our floundering auto industry — the California Chronicle reports that the 2004 program paved the way for the purchase of more than 100,000 hybrids. According to USA Today, the yellow sticker also increased a vehicle’s resale value by an average of $4,000. Consumers wary of the pricetag on these high-efficiency vehicles could be persuaded as the benefits add up.
Opponents of the bill questioned if the incentives would result in additional cars from shared riders and bus patrons jumping to individual green-energy cars. Admittedly, the increased traffic on car-clogged freeways could potentially overcrowd the carpool lanes and thus annul its “fast-lane” purpose.
A 2008 Caltrans report, however, found only a 6 percent increase from 2006 in carpool lane congestion following the original 75,000 sticker allowances in 2007. The new provision caps eligibility at 40,000 vehicles, presumably to allow even less congestion than the previous program. Current estimates predict that the 40,000 figure will not be reached for about two years.
What about those who wonder whether sharing rides is more efficient than a solo occupant hybrid?
It’s important to realize that the vehicles seeking sticker qualifications must first meet the California Environmental Protection Agency’s “most stringent Super Ultra Low Emission Vehicle (SULEV) tailpipe emission standard, have zero evaporative emissions and use a zero emission fuel such as electricity or hydrogen” as stated by the EPA’s Air Resource Board. These stiff and exacting standards leave no room to doubt the environmental sustainability of the vehicles allotted the access stickers.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics, passenger cars got an average of 22.6 miles per gallon in 2008, while Toyota promises a 51/48 miles per gallon city and highway miles per gallon for its 2011 Prius. A speedy back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that opponents of the new regulations would have to sardine themselves six to a car to match the energy efficiency of a single-driver, next-generation hybrid.
I wish them the best of luck with that — maybe we will see them on the freeway, our golden badges of honor laughing as we speed away.
Rebecca Gao is a freshman majoring in global health.