Ottawa columnist argues HOV lanes hurt the environment

Post by Daniel Fontaine in


hov lane
HOV lanes are becoming more commonplace in most North American cities.

Over the last four days, I had the pleasure of spending some time in our nation’s capital. In between all the meetings I had scheduled on the Hill, I had a few minutes to pick up the local paper to check out the latest comings and goings in the City of Ottawa. It didn’t take long to realize that everything “civic” seems to be sharing front-page headlines with noteworthy issues such as the Afghanistan conflict and our global recession.

Whether it was my cab driver who bemoaned the fact council bungled the whole stadium issue or the front page headlines about the city’s budget woes, civic issues seem top of mind in Ottawa these days. Perhaps that’s why an OpEd in the Ottawa Citizen really got my attention as I read it on the flight home to Vancouver. It explored one of my favourite topics – urban density and the environment.

Leonard Stern penned what I consider as one of the best opinion pieces I’ve read in a long time. He questions the benefits of pushing a policy of producing more HOV (high occupancy vehicle) lanes in our urban centres. I must admit that I hadn’t really given much thought to the impact HOV lanes were having on promoting urban sprawl, but Stern’s column good food for thought.

He bemoans the fact that HOV lanes in the Ottawa area have actually helped to encourage urban sprawl, rather than reduce our overall carbon footprint. At first blush it would seem a counter intuitive to say HOV lanes are bad for the environment, but Stern makes a good case:

Cars with single occupant vehicles symbolize waste. HOV lanes are all the rage because they promote car-pooling and thus represent a more virtuous commute. Politicians build HOV lanes because it makes them pro-environment.

Except it’s all a big scam. The real purpose of HOV lanes is to reduce highway congestion and this, in turn, sabotages efforts to create denser, greener, and more efficient cities. As urban critic David Owen explains, improving traffic flow actually increases “the environmental damage done by cars by raising overall traffic volume, encouraging sprawl and long car commutes, and reducing the disincentives that make drivers think twice about getting into their cars.

As someone who worked quite intimately to develop Vancouver’s EcoDensity initiative, I agree with a number of the arguments Stern puts forward. Building denser, walkable cities is one of the best opportunities we have to reduce our overall carbon emissions and eco-footprint. No amount of composting, bike lanes or community gardens will ever make up for the environmental impact bad city planning will have on our urban environment.

Stern goes goes on to make a number of other really interesting points:

Ottawa is a classic example of sprawl – a community which relatively few people are dispersed over a large geography, across which public services are inefficiently distributed at huge expense. Ottawa is typical of cities where traffic engineers spend all their time, as Owen puts it, figuring out ways to “increase car volume, reduce commute time, increase average speed - in other words, to make car use more pleasant and dependable.

He then quotes Owen who states:

Automobiles have enabled us to create a way of life that cannot be sustained without automobiles.

The most salient point he makes is aimed at environmentalists who seem more pre-occupied with pushing symbolic gestures such as community gardens and bike lanes on bridges than actually reducing our overall carbon footprint:

Owen argues that if environmentalists wanted to make a difference, rather than fighting developers they would themselves buy up parking lots in big cities and construct apartment buildings on them. That would increase population density in the city and make driving more of an inconvenience.

I must admit the last statement gave me flashbacks of working for NPA Mayor Sam Sullivan who used to question why the environmental movement never fully got behind EcoDensity. He argued that that land use was the biggest tool “core” cities like Vancouver had to help protect the environment. Yet few environmentalists were prepared to take on the potential wrath of people living in single family neighbourhoods -as they were their biggest donors. As they say, no-one wants to bite the hand that feeds them.

Stern’s OpEd was one of the most refreshing, environmentally-friendly opinion pieces I’ve read in years. Let’s hope that his message of eco-friendly, denser communities made an impact on the decision makers helping to plan the future development of the Ottawa region.


Why pick on just HOV lanes? Isn't rapid transit as much an enabler of sprawl?

Great post. The reason the environmentalists won't support density is it will cut into their fundraising efforts. How will they be able to keep all those eco-lobby jobs if they actually take on real environmental issues. It's much easier to point fingers at Japanese whalers, Alberta tarsands, and evil loggers, than tackle what is actually killing the planet - urban sprawl. Most of these enviro lobbyists actually live in big energy succking homes in the burbs. So why do you think they would oppose urban sprawl? Your a bit naive.

A great post but one issue: what is HOV? (I know now - I found it on Wikipedia and also the first paragraph of the Citizen op-ed piece.)

I'm sure most people know what HOV refers to but for someone like me, who has never driven a car in his life, or someone in a smaller community where this idea may be a bit disconnected from their lives, the acronym is meaningless and indecipherable.

Yes, acronyms are a pet peeve of mine. Other than that, I loved the post. But I really did read the entire thing with only a vague sense of what HOV might mean.

HOV stands for High Occupancy Vehicle. I do apologize that I didn't spell this out for our readers. I too have acronyms as a pet peeve, so your comment struck a chord! I will also amend the main post to spell out HOV. Thanks for your comment and taking the time to read the blog.

Whoa...there are many things that are "killing" the planet...We are very naive to call it urban sprall...and that these eco "walkable cities" are bound to save us.....Capitalism and the big business (industrial) model are likely the 2nd biggest "negative" on the environment...the 1st biggest is the hard truth - there are too many of us,,,yes us draining and using the resources of this planet...Go educate yourselves, look at the big business models - to documentaries to watch could be "Food inc" (2009) now in video stores; and one that exemplifies profits over the environment..."WHo Killed the Electric Car"... (the electric car is coming back...they made them (and shredded them) too soon ....sounds silly but the technology of today and (in my home) we are on our 3rd hot water tank in 9yrs (Bradford White) companies today have figured out that if they make "disposable" fridges water tanks widgets and gadgets - electronics - things that the consumer has to regularly re-buy they simply make more money....and profits and stock prices go up.....If the governments and people want to save the environment, community gardens are but one small step.....but it will have no net impact on giving the planet extra life when we are really at a point that that is needed....what needs to occur is laws that things have to be built to last... here is an me a Chevy Caprice or Ford Tempo or 90;s model Taurus even, the Chev Cavalier or Pontiac SUnbird....or 6000le cars...These are all gone for the most part,,,,Things arebuilt to not last and that is the biggest negative on the environment....This could go on and on....and we all know that we will continue to sacrifice our quality of life then to make any such laws that will negatively affect the bottom line of the large companies ....lets be honest.,..that is why we focus on the few kms of HOV lanes or community gardens....but the energy to this focus is naive to the real "large" problems that are occuring all around us,... Go watch the 2 movies above - especially'll be amazed!!! Now I have to go find a local meat supplier or get a backyard chicken...

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