This page last updated February 29, 2024
Transportation planners — as well as many citizens — have realized that simply adding new general-purpose lanes in major corridors is only a short-term solution to traffic congestion. Before long, the new lanes are just as congested as before and there's little or no room to add even more lanes. Instead, transportation projects need to focus on moving people, not just vehicles. High-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes are one way to do so and have been successfully used in many cities in the United States and abroad.
Furthermore, HOV lanes provide a clear lane for emergency vehicles, and they can help to reduce emissions, which is an important consideration as Bexar County is in non-compliance with federal air quality standards.
Finally, HOV lanes help to "future-proof" a corridor by building-in lanes today that can be used in the future for new transportation options such as autonomous vehicles.
HOV lanes were also added to the Loop 1604 and I‑35 expansions after toll lanes were scrapped on those projects.
The region's first HOV lane opened on September 26th, 2020 on eastbound I‑10 from Ralph Fair Rd. to La Cantera Pkwy. With that opening, San Antonio joined Houston and Dallas as Texas cities with HOV lanes. Since then, HOV lanes have also opened on westbound I‑10 from La Cantera Pkwy. to Ralph Fair Rd., and on US 281 in both directions between Evans Rd. and Borgfeld Dr.
While TxDOT initially builds the HOV lanes, VIA operates them.
Current HOV lanes
Currently, there are HOV lanes on I‑10 West between La Cantera Pkwy. and Ralph Fair Rd., and on US 281 from Evans Rd. to Borgfeld Dr. In both cases, there is one HOV lane in each direction that is buffer-separated from the adjacent general-purpose mainlanes. Below is the typical cross-section of I‑10 and US 281 with HOV lanes (note that the number of mainlanes varies on US 281.)
Motorcycles are also allowed to use the HOV lanes even with just the driver solo and no additional passengers. Vehicles hauling trailers are prohibited. While some other cities allow electric or hybrid vehicles to use HOV lanes, no exemptions for those have been approved locally, so the regular occupancy requirements apply.
The HOV lanes are on the inside lane next to the center barrier. They are separated from the main traffic lanes by a buffer area marked by solid white lines which you should not cross. Instead, you should enter or exit the HOV lanes at either end or at designated intermediate entry/egress points. At those locations, the HOV lane buffer will change to a broken white line indicating where you can enter or exit the lane.
To enter the HOV lane, look for the HOV lane entrance signs overhead — like the one shown here — that indicate where you can enter the lane. If you're entering at an intermediate access point, be sure to check for traffic already in the HOV lane before merging into it. If you are already in the HOV lane, be sure to watch for vehicles entering the lane and be prepared to give them some room to safely merge.
To leave the HOV lane, carefully merge to the right at the egress location. Be sure to plan ahead for your exit and only leave the HOV lane at the designated locations. If you're in the left mainlane at an HOV lane exit, be sure to watch for vehicles merging into your lane from the HOV lane and be prepared to give them some room to safely merge.
The US 281 HOV lane users can access the Stone Oak Park & Ride directly via an exit and overpass from the HOV lane, and will eventually also be able to access the HOV lane directly from the Stone Oak Park & Ride via an overpass from the garage's upper level. This connection is also used by buses traveling to and from the Park & Ride. (Currently, access to the Park & Ride is limited to traffic using the northbound HOV lane. Work to open the southbound ramp is underway.)
The HOV lanes are in operation 24 hours a day. Use of the HOV lane without the required occupancy, or unsafe crossing of the buffer area, can result in a citation.
All signage pertaining to the HOV lane has "HOV" with the black and white diamond symbol and will typically be positioned to the left. Some HOV-related signage is green but has a black and white HOV tab at the top to indicate that it pertains to the HOV lane, such as the example above.
For more information, see the informational video from VIA below.
VIA HOV informational video
Future HOV lanes
HOV lanes are now under construction on Loop 1604 from Bandera Rd. to Redland Rd., and on I‑35 North from Rittiman Rd. to the Guadalupe county line; the I‑35 HOV lanes will be included on the new upper level being built. Additionally, HOV lanes are included in the additional future expansion of I‑35 from the Bexar county line to FM 1103, on Loop 1604 from Redland Rd. to I‑35, and a future expansion project on I‑10 that will extend the existing HOV lanes there all the way to SH 46 in Boerne.
When those projects are done, there will be about 70 miles of HOV lanes in the San Antonio area. Furthermore, planners are studying if and how to continue the I‑10 and US 281 HOV lanes inside Loop 1604. Planners in the 1980s actually included provisions in the double-decked sections of I‑10 downtown for a possible future HOV lane.
Below are typical cross-sections for the currently planned HOV lanes in the various corridors.
to I‑35 North
|— AND —
to FM 1103
Rittiman Rd. to FM 3009
- What are the requirements to use the HOV lanes?
The HOV lanes are open to passenger vehicles with two or more passengers ("HOV 2+"), vanpools, VIA buses, motorcycles, and emergency vehicles. Vehicles with trailers and trucks over one ton (payload capacity) are prohibited. Electric/hybrid vehicles have not been specifically exempted, so they must have two or more passengers to use the HOV lane. The HOV lanes are in operation 24 hours a day.
- Do children count as passengers for the HOV lane?
Yes, all human occupants of a vehicle count. (A bill filed in the 2023 legislative session to specifically count unborn fetuses as a passenger for the purpose of using an HOV lane died in committee.)
- Can electric/hybrid vehicles with only the driver use the HOV lane?
No. While some cities allow single-occupancy electric vehicles to use HOV lanes, that exception has not been made here, so electric vehicles must meet the 2+ occupancy requirement to use local HOV lanes. Also, it's worth noting that the federal law that allows states to permit alternative fuel vehicles to use HOV lanes expires in 2025.
- Can the HOV lane requirements change?
Yes, the lanes will be monitored and changes to the occupancy requirements, permitted vehicles, time of operation, or other operational aspects can be adjusted if needed.
- Where can traffic enter and exit the HOV lanes?
HOV lanes are located to the left of the general-purpose mainlanes. Therefore, traffic must enter the HOV lane from the leftmost general-purpose mainlane, and traffic exiting the HOV lane merges into the left mainlane. To maintain safe traffic flow in the HOV lane and adjacent mainlanes, there are designated locations to enter and exit the HOV lanes. These include each end of the HOV corridor as well as intermediate locations generally spaced two to three miles apart. These entrances and exits are marked using signage topped with the standard black and white diamond symbol to differentiate it from the signs for the general-purpose lanes. Exit signs for the HOV lane designate the upcoming freeway exits that are accessible by leaving the HOV lane at that point. The HOV lane exit is placed an adequate distance upstream from those exits so that traffic has sufficient room to safely merge to the right to reach the intended exit. Drivers in the mainlanes at HOV exit points should be courteous and allow traffic exiting the HOV lane to safely merge.
The US 281 HOV lane also has a dedicated overpass and ramps directly connecting the HOV lane to the Stone Oak Park & Ride garage. Carpools can access the HOV lane directly from the upper level of the garage (currently closed to traffic) and return via an exit from the HOV lane.
- How are the HOV lanes marked and separated from the general-purpose mainlanes?
A buffer area marked with solid white lines separates the HOV lane from the adjacent lanes; drivers should not cross this buffer area. The buffer area will change to a broken white line at locations where you should enter or exit the lane. The HOV lane itself is marked with a white diamond symbol on the pavement every 500 feet or so. HOV lane signage has "HOV" and the standard black and white diamond symbol to differentiate it from signage for the general lanes.
Early plans for US 281 proposed to use flexible bollards between the HOV lane and the mainlanes, but due to expected high maintenance costs, the final plan did not include them. Bollards or barriers can be added at a later time if it is determined they're warranted.
- HOV lanes seem confusing to use.
While it might seem confusing at first glance, they're really not any more difficult than making a simple lane change. Just pay attention to the signs and markings, plan your exit in advance, and change lanes carefully where indicated. If you're still unsure, then you can simply not use them.
- The HOV lane merge on I-10 at La Cantera is causing a bottleneck.
After more than three years of operation, the HOV merge on I‑10 did not cause any significant issues, and traffic flowed freely through that area even during the peak of morning rush hour. Instead, the recurring congestion there now emerged in conjunction with the increase in heavy construction in that area. The HOV lane merge certainly does not help the situation there, but it's not the root cause. This is all supported by the fact that congestion on the outbound side in that area emerged at the same time.
- How are the HOV lanes enforced?
Each HOV lane has enforcement areas where police can monitor usage. Per state law, violators can be ticketed and fined. SAPD and VIA transit police can enforce HOV lane restrictions.
- What should I do if I'm in the HOV lane and an emergency vehicle with lights and siren on approaches from behind?
You should do the same thing you would do if you were in the left lane of a freeway that didn't have an HOV lane, and that is to find a gap in the next lane to the right and move over as quickly and safely as possible, even if it means crossing the solid white lines. This may require speeding up if there isn't a gap right where you are, but hopefully other drivers will see what is happening and let you in.
- I will not use the HOV lane, so it won't benefit me. My taxes shouldn't pay for something I won't use.
Even if you don't use the HOV lane, you still derive a benefit from it in that every vehicle that uses the HOV lane is one or more vehicles that won't be in the general-purpose mainlanes, thus helping to ease overall congestion as well as pollution. A report on the Dallas HOV lanes in 2001 indicated that speeds in the mainlanes adjacent to HOV lanes increased an average of 12 mph after the HOV facilities opened. That said, we all pay taxes for many things we don't use or directly benefit from but that benefit everyone generally. Don't forget that the people who use the HOV lanes are also taxpayers. If it helps, assume that their taxes paid for the HOV lane while your taxes paid for the additional mainlanes.
- San Antonio isn't a carpooling city, so HOV lanes will be underutilized.
Actually, according to 2019 Census data downloaded and crunched by yours truly, of the 50 largest metro areas in the US, San Antonio has one of the highest rates of carpooling: fifth in percentage of automobile commuters, and first in percentage of all commuters.
- Instead of an HOV lane, another general-purpose mainlane would provide more capacity.
Yes, having an extra mainlane in place of an HOV lane would provide more general-purpose capacity. But the benefit would be short-lived because that extra lane will soon also become congested and will leave less room (if any) then to expand. With an HOV lane, planners build-in a corridor that can be used now and well into the future to move more people through the corridor in carpools and buses, people who won't be clogging the mainlanes in their single-occupancy cars. Freeway corridors are more than just pathways for vehicles — they're high-capacity transportation corridors that need to be considered not only for their ability to move vehicles, but also their ability to move people. These two purposes can coexist, and HOV lanes are a way of doing that.
A new general-purpose mainlane, while providing immediate gratification, is myopic in the long-run; HOV lanes reflect a more sophisticated long-term planning desired by many citizens. HOV lanes also preserve a corridor for future transportation options such as autonomous vehicles and provide a clear lane for emergency vehicles.
It's also important to note that in all cases locally thus far, the addition of an HOV lane to a corridor has not been at the expense of another general-purpose lane. In other words, the number of new general-purpose lanes being added to the corridors where HOV lanes are being added is the same as would have been added without an HOV lane, and the HOV lanes were added as part of larger projects that included new general-purpose lanes.
- The HOV lane appears to be empty most of the time. How is this beneficial?
This is by design. HOV lanes are intended to be congestion-free most of the time in order to provide the incentive to carpool or use transit, which then yields the benefits for everyone as mentioned elsewhere in this FAQ. If the HOV lane was often congested, then it would be no better than the other lanes, which would defeat its purpose. Remember that each vehicle using an HOV lane is typically the equivalent of two or more single-occupancy vehicles, so the HOV lane is moving more people at a time using fewer vehicles. One way to think about it is this — railroad tracks are "empty" most of the time, but when a section of track is occupied by a train, it's moving a high density of people or cargo even with the large gaps in between.
- Nobody wants HOV lanes.
That's simply not true. Of the over 3,500 respondents to the SA Tomorrow transportation planning survey in 2015, 76% either agreed or strongly-agreed that HOV lanes should be an important part of San Antonio's transportation future. Anecdotally, the author of this website attends nearly every public meeting for transportation projects and has consistently heard broad-based public support for HOV lanes.
- Houston and Dallas have HOV lanes but they're still congested, so this proves that HOV lanes don't work.
This is a fallacy and is a bit like saying that because a city has a police department but still has a lot of crime, then it proves that having a police department isn't a solution to crime. One could also say that since Houston and Dallas both also have plenty of wide freeways (Houston has the widest freeway in the world), this proves that expanding roads also doesn't work.
In reality, nothing is ever going to completely solve congestion, so it takes a combination of strategies to attack congestion from different angles. So while HOV lanes on their own won't completely solve congestion, they're another tool in the toolbox, and things would likely be worse without them. Affirming that, a report on the Dallas HOV lanes in 2001 indicated that speeds in the mainlanes adjacent to HOV lanes increased an average of 12 mph after the HOV facilities opened.
- Why build short stretches of HOV lanes on I‑10 and US 281 when there aren't any others in San Antonio?
The inclusion of HOV lanes in freeway projects is a recent change in local transportation planning policy, and the I‑10 and US 281 projects were in development when that policy was put into effect, so HOV lanes were included in those projects. Consequently, these could be considered "starter" HOV lanes. Planners are already considering how to continue the I‑10 and US 281 HOV lanes inside Loop 1604, and future plans for I‑10 from Leon Springs to Boerne include HOV lanes.
Beyond those corridors, HOV lanes are also now under construction as part of expansions on Loop 1604 and I‑35 North. This piecemeal approach to building HOV lanes is actually quite common. Remember that San Antonio's freeway system started with just a short section of I‑10 between Woodlawn and Culebra that provided no significant connectivity but was part of a bigger plan. "Rome wasn't built in a day."
- The construction required to build the HOV lanes was an unnecessary inconvenience.
So far, all HOV lanes here have been or will be built as part of larger projects that are also adding more general-purpose lanes, i.e. there was already going to be construction happening anyway, and adding the HOV lanes to the project did not appreciably lengthen the construction time.
- HOV lanes are a form of government social-engineering.
Some people believe this, and that's understandable. But keep in mind the goal in this case is something that is pretty much universally-desired, that being reduced congestion. With HOV lanes, the method is an incentive. Instead of that "carrot", a "stick" such as tolling or congestion pricing could be used, so one could look at this as the lesser of two evils.
- This is another example of a harebrained TxDOT plan and is a waste of money.
This was not solely a TxDOT plan. HOV lanes were approved as part of the region's federally-mandated long-term transportation plan by the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), comprised of elected leaders from various local governments, as elements of both the local congestion mitigation plan as well as the air quality plan, the latter of which has taken on new urgency given Bexar County's recent designation as being in non-attainment of federal air quality standards.
HOV lanes are widely used in major cities across the US, and a 2016 MPO study of several advanced transportation corridor options found that HOV lanes ranked as one of the best strategies in nearly all of the study corridors. HOV lanes also are a way to preserve a corridor for future transportation options such as autonomous vehicles, and surveys have shown broad-based public support for HOV lanes. The lanes are a joint effort between TxDOT and VIA and are managed by VIA after construction.
Other sites of interest
|VIA - HOV lanes
|TxDOT - Managed lanes