March 1, 2024

Hybrid Owners Look to Extend Carpool Privilege

SAN FRANCISCO — Virtue may be its own reward, but incentives don’t hurt. In California in 2004, when the country’s first measure restricting vehicles’ greenhouse gas emissions became law, 75,000 owners of the gas-stingiest hybrid cars were assured access to carpool lanes.

Now the $8 yellow decal that served as a get-out-of-traffic-free card is about to become meaningless: the privilege, originally set to expire in 2008,  was legislatively extended twice, and now ends July 1. 

But the Toyota Prius and Honda Civic drivers who got the coveted decals — 10,000 more were added a couple of years later — are finding it hard to accept the idea that they are not as special as they once were.

“It’s so California,” said Fran Pavley, a state senator who sponsored the original measure as an assemblywoman seven years ago, as she tried to describe the aggrieved response to the change. “It’s not quite like taking away your firstborn,” she added. “But it’s right up there for anyone who spends time on the freeway.”

Her district includes Santa Monica and Malibu, where 3 percent of all cars are hybrids — the greatest concentration in the state. Los Angeles County, whose freeways of molasses have contributed to pop song lyrics and hospital asthma admissions, is home to 27,227 of the yellow-stickered hybrids, almost one-third of the state total.

The lobbying for an extension of the carpool lane privileges is unlikely to bear fruit, said Ms. Pavley, a Democrat who drives a Prius but has no sticker.

John Burton, a former leader of the State Senate, called Ms. Pavley to push for the extension, because vehicles that qualify for a new (green) sticker program do not go on sale until next year. Mr. Burton, now chairman of the state Democratic Party, has a yellow-stickered car, qualifying him to shave many minutes off the 90-minute drive between his home in San Francisco and the Capitol in Sacramento. But the time he saved, he said, is “honest to God not that big a deal.”

Matthew Kahn, an economics professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has studied hybrid owners, said they were “a mixture of people wanting to signal their virtuousness and people wanting to get to work quickly.”

In the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, where all hybrids are given carpool lane privileges, the number of hybrids is nearly double that in the Maryland suburbs, where they have no special status. Within the Virginia suburbs, Prince William County, which is farther from the area’s work hubs, has the highest proportion of hybrids, said Nicholas Ramfos, a transportation specialist with the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

In Sacramento, Ms. Pavley’s staff is considering changing her phone number as of July 1, when the yellow-stickered cars must rejoin the noncarpool plebeians. “Maybe we need to get people counseling,” she said.

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