Wednesday 20 July 2011

Tel Aviv's private HOT lane shows signs of success

In January 2011, as reported here, the first HOT lane in Israel was opened, effectively providing additional lane capacity between Ben Gurion Airport and downtown Tel Aviv. The lane has been built by a private company, and offers the following options for users:
- Registering to pay, verified by Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) technology. The current price being 6 Shekels (U$1.75);
- Paying at toll booths manually;
- Vehicles with four or more occupants at peak times (three offpeak), have free access once verified at a toll booth (occupants are manually counted);
- Park and ride service, with a carpark at Shafirim Interchange and frequent free shuttles into the city (15 minute intervals typically, 5 minutes at peak times).

Buses and taxis have free access to the HOT lane.

According to the Jerusalem Post, the HOT lane is having some success, given it is running at near 80% capacity on average.   The HOT lane is able to introduce dynamic pricing, so that anyone about to select the lane will know in advance the price.  The intention being to maintain a minimum speed of 70 km/h.  The owner, Shafir Engineering, not only expects to use price to maintain free flow conditions, but actively monitor the lanes so that any breakdowns, accidents or other incidents can be swiftly cleared.  Indeed, its business depends on providing such reliability for its customers.

There are a wide range of interesting points about this HOT lane.

First is its quaint use of toll booths as a manual payment option, but more importantly to check vehicle occupancy! One of the problems of HOV and HOT lanes is checking vehicle occupancy, given the report indicates it takes up to three minutes to do that, surely the point must come whereby it is simply better value to scrap the occupancy exemption.

Secondly, the park and ride shuttle is an interesting adjunct. It presumably does not compete with pre-existing public transport on any great scale, but what it does do is offer an alternative for users that may not otherwise exist. Door to door shuttle bus services are capable of offering the convenience of taxis at a relatively low cost, and if this helps deliver better road pricing, then maybe such options (paid for by the toll) may be worth considering.

Thirdly, the electronic toll component is free flow, but using ANPR technology, not tag and beacon (otherwise known as DSRC). This is notable for the rarity in using such technology (without DSRC) for tolls, with only the congestion charging schemes in London and Stockholm, and the Northern Gateway toll road in New Zealand being ones I am aware of. 

Finally, it isn't simply a HOT lane, but a dynamic HOT lane.  As with several other global examples, such as the 91 Express Lanes in California, pricing can vary in real time based on demand.  In other words, a basic level of service is guaranteed, a notion virtually unknown in the road sector.

What the Tel Aviv Highway 1 HOT lane demonstrates it how new highway capacity, particularly on congested routes, can be viable built using private capital and tolling that specific capacity (in the form of lanes). Without detailed capital, operating revenues and cost figures, I can’t make an informed judgment as to its complete viability. However, it is offering choice, providing relief for the untolled route, and improving mobility. Perhaps its greatest limitation, beyond the odd use of toll booth checking for HOVs, is the issue with merging with the existing highway, which may require an engineering based solution (junctions must always have more capacity than the roads either side of them).

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