High-occupany vehicle lanes, or HOV lanes, are one tool in the kit to reduce congestion on Ontario’s highways. The concept is simple: the far-left HOV lane is restricted to certain types of vehicles carrying a minimum number of people, including the driver.

HOV Qualifiers

A vehicle must have 2 or more people in it to use the HOV lane – the driver and at least one passenger. Vehicles are restricted to cars, motorcycles, vans, SUVs and light trucks and commercial trucks under 6.5 meters in length, weighing less than 4,500 kg. If you’re towing a trailer, you can still use the HOV lane if total combined length is under 6.5 meters.

Certain vehicles have unrestricted access to HOV lanes regardless of the number of occupants, such as buses and emergency vehicles. Until June 30, 2016, licenced taxis, limousines and electric vehicles with green licence plates are included. Penalties for improper use of HOV lanes are a fine of $110 and loss of three license demerit points. Currently, highways 402, 404, 417 and the QEW have the lanes, marked with clear signage and painted road symbols, including a buffer zone painted with stripes.

Criticism of HOV Lanes

San Francisco

Those who believe HOV lanes don’t relieve congestion point out that the reduced density of traffic within them means there is higher density in the remaining lanes. This is especially true when an HOV lane is created without widening the existing roadway.

Research in California, in and around San Francisco, showed that highway throughput is not significantly impacted by the special commuter lanes. There is no sign that the lanes are encouraging car pooling either. The study showed that the HOV lanes carried 400 fewer cars an hour compared with unrestricted use lanes. Therefore, if the HOV lane was created from the existing road surface, then overall capacity of the highway is actually restricted.

In Favour of HOV Lanes

Where HOV is supported by highway expansion, these protests go out the window. An average highway lane can carry up to 2,200 vehicles an hour, regardless of the number of occupants. Adding a fourth lane as HOV use, for example, adds a potential 25 percent increase in vehicles, and that’s an additional 4,400 people assuming all vehicles carry the minimum two.

The Ontario model is based on having roadway widths that support the painted buffer zone. Studies of other HOV programs indicates safety improves substantially when a buffer is added.

HOT Lanes

A variation of the HOV system is coming on a trial basis. The high-occupancy toll lanes give all drivers access to the extra lanes, although at a cost. Cars with two or more occupants can continue to use HOT lanes in the same way as HOV lanes. Single drivers, however, can choose the HOT lane if they are willing to pay a fee, not unlike on the 407 toll highway.

In the U.S. where more than 15 HOT lane systems exist, three or more occupants has become the dividing line to make the projects successful. While the Ontario plan uses two occupants, critics suggest the move to three is inevitable.