An interesting article in the Globe and Mail on Saturday, describing the sale of space in HOV lanes to single-occupancy vehicles in congested Toronto. Having recently driven from Montreal to Toronto, and experienced the monster traffic on the outskirts of the city on the 401, it caught my interest, as did the recent post here about the congestion on Vancouver’s north shore routes.

[For the permits,] The price is $180 for the three months, which works out to about $2.75 per weekday, with the promise of drivers saving up to 10 minutes each way. If provincial projections hold true, this would mean motorists paying about $8.25 for each hour of driving they eliminate.

This is much less than the $20 to $30 per hour of a person’s time often used by transportation planners when trying to justify a new project. If the QEW permit seems like a bargain, there are around 3,500 applicants who might agree with you, a level of demand that suggests the price was set too low.

Indeed, an internal government projection shows that they could have charged $150 per month – equivalent to about $20 per hour of time saved – and still had more applicants than the available number of permits. Their assessment concluded that 1,800 to 2,400 people would apply for the pass at that higher rate, compared to a projected 2,500 to 3,300 applicants at $60 per month.

Commuters’ behaviour seems to get locked in very early, making it even more important to try to establish effective transit into expanding areas.

Commuting patterns can be difficult to break.

Researchers say that one of the few times it’s possible to convince people to change how they get to work is when they change jobs or change homes. Without those major shake-ups, commuters tend to remain creatures of habit.

Price also matters. For all that people grouse about traffic on Highway 401, which tens of thousands of Toronto-area drivers clog every day, the tolled alternative nearby remains notably less busy. And the price difference between two options sometimes doesn’t have to be much for commuters to stick with the congested one. Although the QEW permits are over-subscribed now, the demand may drop if people don’t really feel they have a meaningful amount more time for the money they’re spending.

“Free time, it just gets sucked up by other things, we don’t really even notice it,” said Ms. Whillans, the UBC social psychologist. “Can we make time feel more valuable by reminding people that they can do other, better things with it?”

In an ongoing study in Vancouver, she is looking at people who use two particular bridges. In a phone interview she explained that the Port Mann is tolled while the Pattullo is free to cross. But the Pattullo is under construction and drivers face 15-to-30-minute delays compared to the tolled bridge.

“Even among people who say that the Port Mann would save them time, they would still prefer, hypothetically, to take cash, the equivalent amount of cash, as opposed to taking the toll bridge,” she said. “People kind of underestimate the value of having those 30 extra minutes of free time. So they kind of think having $6, which is how much the toll is, will make them happier than having 30 better, non-stuck-in-traffic minutes.”