Lexus Lanes Define Miami's Commuting Culture

fromWLRN

Miami is one place in the country where dynamic congestion tolling has taken off. Those are special lanes where drivers can pay to avoid heavy traffic. They've been dubbed "Lexus lanes" by some.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

All this week, I've been in Miami with the great team here at member station WLRN. Thanks for letting us share the studio, guys. I promise we're going to clean up.

We came to Florida after a trip to Cuba to learn how Cuba and Cuban policy have shaped this region. There are, of course, other forces shaping life here. One is interstate 95 which ends in Miami. WLRN reporter, Kenny Malone, has been exploring various aspects of I-95 and has this story of two little words that now define much of Miami's current commuting culture.

KENNY MALONE, BYLINE: Carlos Lora is tall, dark and bespectacled. He looks like he should be in a commercial zipping around in a Lexus. For now, he's in a Mini Cooper merging onto I-95 where no one is zipping. It's brake lights everywhere.

CARLOS LORA: Whenever you see a sea of red, you know something's up.

MALONE: That something is simply Miami rush hour. Five days a week, Lora leaves South Beach, where he manages a condo building, and like loads of other commuters, runs into this mess. Except Lora is willing to pay to get out of it.

Up ahead are a series of plastic poles that section off two express lanes. As traffic gets worse, the cost of entry goes up. Lora looks ahead at a black and yellow LED toll sign that changes by the minute. It's partially covered by trees.

LORA: And I see that it's at four bucks in between those palm trees.

MALONE: To get home smoothly to his wife and his two Italian greyhounds, Lora says - totally worth it.

BRIAN RICK: SUV, SUV, pickup truck.

MALONE: Brian Rick squints at a massive wall of live traffic feeds from all over Miami. He's a spokesman for the Florida Department of Transportation but looks like a nature show host - khakis, hiking boots, prominent mustache.

RICK: I've alternated between mustache and goatee. When I was 23, I had a full beard, long hair down to my shoulders, and I wrote poetry on the beach.

MALONE: On the video, a fancy sedan drives into the express lanes.

RICK: Yep.

MALONE: That might've been a Lexus.

RICK: That might've been. We don't know. We can't tell at this point.

MALONE: There's a common nickname, both here and around the country, for these pay-your-way-out-of-traffic lanes. People call them Lexus lanes. And Brian Rick is trying to prove there aren't that many Lexuses on 95 Express - that whoever came up with this nickname was seriously misguided.

HEIDI STAMM: My name is Heidi Stamm.

MALONE: Heidi Stamm is the transportation consultant who came up with the phrase. She was an early critic of these express lanes which are technically called high occupancy toll lanes.

STAMM: It was just, like, wow, you know what this feels like? This feels like, you know, people with a lot of money are the only ones who are going to use it - people who drive cars like Mercedes, like BMWs, like Lexuses.

MALONE: And so she started calling them Lexus lanes. It took off like wildfire and became the rallying cry against high occupancy toll lanes. If Stamm invented the nickname...

ROBERT POOLE: Oh, it definitely caught me and other advocates off guard.

MALONE: Robert Poole invented the lanes. He's a transportation expert with a libertarian think tank called the Reason Foundation. He's helped set up these market priced express lanes all over the country and says the phrase Lexus lanes doesn't really bother him anymore. But it did.

MALONE: Do you drive a Lexus, by chance?

POOLE: I do not. I actually made a decision. Although I could afford a Lexus by the later stages of my career - for a long time, I was concerned about not being - not having people be able to typecast me. Oh, he's just one of those people who drives a Lexus and doesn't care about anybody else.

RICK: Definitely a van.

MALONE: Not a luxury car.

RICK: Definitely not a luxury car. Box truck.

MALONE: Brian Rick, as a transportation official, made it his mission to eradicate the phrase Lexus lanes, pointing out to anyone who will listen that clearly most of the cars here are not Lexuses.

RICK: Van - work van, most likely.

MALONE: Aside from anecdotal counts like this, no one's actually studied what kinds of cars use the Miami express lanes. There was a study in Atlanta that showed Lexuses were more prominent in the pay lanes. Regardless, the number of Lexuses is only part of Brian Rick's problem with the nickname, anyway.

RICK: When I was a young writer in my teens, I loved alliteration.

MALONE: Now Brian Rick hates alliteration. He thinks it is hokey and sounds like the writing of a 12-year-old.

RICK: Or maybe a 14-year-old.

MALONE: And that is being generous, he says. For NPR News, I'm Kenny Malone in Miami.

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