January 27, 2008
Watch out, another traffic spy is heading your way
Car-sharing lanes are coming to Britain in a bid to tackle rising congestion and a new smart camera will help to police them
Car-share buddy
Emma Smith

There’s a new traffic camera coming to a road near you and it’s cleverer than all the others. It is codenamed Cyclops and will be used to enforce the government’s latest idea for reducing congestion: car sharing.

Cyclops can detect how many people are in a vehicle, allowing the authorities to fine anyone using a car-sharing lane without a passenger. It works in the dark and can even spot the difference between a real person and a dummy.

The brainchild of Professor John Tyrer, a mechanical engineer and specialist in laser technology at Loughborough University, its official name is “dtect”, though researchers call it Cyclops because its single optical aperture looks like an eye.

The first one is due to be erected by Leeds city council next month, as part of a trial on the city’s car-sharing lane, which runs for about a mile on the A647 into the city centre. It could pave the way for a national network of car-sharing lanes.

The Highways Agency is also considering using the cameras to police its first car-sharing lane in West Yorkshire, due to open in the spring. The £4m high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane is being built on the hard shoulder of a 1.7mile stretch of road linking the southbound M606 to the eastbound M62, a busy commuter route between Bradford and Leeds, and will be open to buses, motorbikes, and cars with two or more occupants.

A second such lane is planned on the M1 between junctions 7 and 10 in Hertfordshire and is due to open towards the end of the year.

With government enthusiasm for road pricing on the wane, and recent evidence that the London congestion charge is failing to cut journey times, car sharing is emerging as a cheaper and less complicated way to address spiralling congestion and cut carbon dioxide emissions.

On average about 60% of cars carry only the driver, according to the Department for Transport (DfT), and this rises to as much as 84% on some popular commuter routes. Traffic planners are convinced that car sharing could quickly free road space by cutting the number of vehicles.

“What we are doing in Leeds with the HOV lane is prioritising people over vehicles,” says Dave Gilson, head of transport policy for the city council. “The HOV lane carries two-thirds of people but less than a third of the vehicles, and these people can benefit from quicker journey times. It’s about making more efficient use of the road space available.”

Leeds is planning more HOV lanes, and towns and other cities are being encouraged by the DfT to adopt them. Bristol has a car-sharing lane on the A4174, part of the Avon ring road to the north of the city, and Birmingham opened its first one in November as part of a year-long pilot scheme.

Some local authorities are considering allowing car sharers to use bus lanes, and thanks to websites such as www.liftshare.org and www.mylifts.com it is easier than ever to find people to share with.

Many employers, too, are introducing incentives for employees who car-share with colleagues, offering lower charges or free parking. BAA, which operates parking at Britain’s airports, along with other parking operators, has looked at the Cyclops camera as a possible means of charging depending on the number of people in a vehicle. A camera could be placed at a car-park barrier and a ticket dispensed, its price dependent on the number of people. Car sharing could also be used as the basis for a graduated congestion charge.

“At the moment we have about 20% of the people using up 80% of the road space by travelling alone,” says Tyrer. “Building more roads is rarely an option, so we need to manage the current road space better. People don’t want to switch to public transport, so car sharing is an easy way to cut the number of vehicles on the road.”

The major stumbling block for car sharing has always been enforcement. Employing police officers to monitor the lanes is expensive and CCTV cameras cannot produce reliable images of the inside of a vehicle and would not work in the dark.

The Leeds council scheme, which began in 1998 as part of a European Union project to test the effectiveness of car sharing, has had an increasing problem with lone drivers sneaking into the HOV lane. Despite the threat of a £30 fine, drivers have learnt they can veer out of the lane if they spot a police officer in a high-visibility jacket (now compulsory for roadside work). The result is violation rates as high as 10%, according to a recent council study, at some times of the day (the lane operates at 7-10am and 4-7pm Monday to Friday).

Tyrer reckons his system, which can identify human skin of any colour by the way it absorbs infrared light, is 90-95% accurate, compared with just 40-50% for manual enforcement. One camera costs £100,000, but Tyrer says that is equivalent to just seven months of police enforcement.

A survey by Privilege Insurance in 2006 suggested that 48% of motorists supported car sharing. In reality, though, motorists can prove reluctant to relinquish their private spaces. In Leeds the HOV lane could be considered at best a muted success. Vehicle occupancy in the zone has risen from an average of 1.35 people per car to 1.43. And that’s despite an average time saving for HOV-lane drivers of about six minutes.

Bristol’s car-sharing lane is under review and could be scrapped if it proves ineffective in cutting congestion. Local residents say it is often underused and blame it for forcing drivers to find rat runs.

Undeterred, Birmingham city council opened a car-sharing lane on the A47 in November. It is part of a £26,000 trial lasting a year. The lane operates at 7-10am and is open to buses and drivers with at least one passenger. Those who violate the rules face a £60 fine.

The AA foresees problems with car sharing. Edmund King, its president, says: “Unlike in California, where there are a lot of HOV lanes and a lot of people living and working in distinct districts, in the UK people live and work all over the place, which makes it more difficult to car-share.

“It is highly likely that if these HOV lanes go ahead they will be immensely underutilised and, rather than being used systematically by people trying to get to work, they will be used by chance, by families on a day out, say.”

King offers a possible solution. “Studies into some of the growing network of American HOV lanes found they were nearly always underused, so over the past five years many have been converted into high-occupancy toll lanes.”

Car sharers can use such lanes free, while lone drivers can pay to use them. The price flashes on overhead signs and changes from about $5 to $10, reflecting the level of congestion. It increases as a disincentive if the lane is filling up and to ensure it always flows quickly.

“There were fears the lanes would become ‘Lexus lanes’ – used only by the rich,” King says. “But research in California found that people across all sections of society approve of them for those times when they’re in a rush.

“This is something we could consider in the UK, but I don’t think we could get away with charging motorists to travel on existing lanes they have already paid for. You would need to add new capacity.”

The United States also offers some interesting lessons in enforcement. Washington is among a number of US cities planning to try Cyclops cameras. Some states prefer old-fashioned name-and-shame tactics, such as reading out on the radio the registration number of a lone driver using a car-sharing lane, or flashing it on gantries.

Even simpler is the “hit them where it really hurts” method, with a fine of $125 (£65) for a first offence, $250 for the second and as much as $500 for a third offence.

And let’s face it, there’s nobody to share the fine with.

Avoid the slog into work, pick up a slug

“Room for a slug?” Picking up slugs makes perfect sense to American drivers, who regularly use highways where there are car-share lanes.

“Slugs” are practitioners of “slugging”, a peculiar form of hitchhiking fuelled by the growth of car sharing. They stand beside car-sharing lanes trying to bag a free ride. Unlike conventional hitching, where the driver is offering a favour, with slugging the benefit is mutual – the driver qualifies for the HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) lane and can arrive at work in half the time.

In Washington DC and neighbouring Virginia, where there are several well-established HOV lanes, slugging has developed into an extremely efficient practice. Although not officially sanctioned by the authorities, slugs wait at recognised “slug stops” and have developed their own etiquette. Chitchat is frowned on, for example. “No one wants a 30-minute polite conversation at the beginning and end of a working day,” according to one regular slug.

Slugs wait in line for the first driver heading in their direction. No money changes hands; slugs should not talk on their mobiles while in the car; no one smokes or eats; the driver controls the radio; and slugs and drivers both say thank you at the beginning and end of the journey.

A practice dubbed “body-snatching”, when drivers try to avoid having to wait by picking up slugs on the way to the queue, is a big nono.

There are even websites on which slugs can post warnings about the behaviour of particular motorists, and slugs retain the right to refuse a lift if they don’t like the look of a car or driver.

Slugging began in the 1970s in Washington, where HOV lanes first sprang up as a reaction to the Arab oil crisis. The term “slug” was a derogatory term used by bus drivers who were annoyed at the use of bus stops by car sharers. Slugs in Washington now generally have their own stops, rather than having to confuse bus drivers. The practice also exists in Baltimore and parts of California, although on a more ad hoc basis. With the spread of car-sharing lanes in the UK it’s only a matter of time before we get our first “slugs”.