Hawaii: Say “Aloha” To Transit-Oriented Development

Craig Chester is a fellow at Smart Growth America.

Not all transportation in Honolulu, Hawaii is a walk on the beach.

Honolulu, one of the most congested cities in the country, could benefit from more transit-oriented development. Photo: ShowBus

Known for its breathtaking natural beauty and warm temperatures, Honolulu is also plagued by heavy traffic congestion and delays. High energy costs and a lack of transportation choices compound the challenges of getting around Hawaii’s state capital and most populous city.

To put it in perspective, Honolulu recently surpassed Los Angeles to become the city with the worst traffic in the nation. And on average, households in the City and County of Honolulu spent a whopping $13,598 each year on transportation alone, wasting an average of 58 hours in traffic during that time.

The good news, though, is that things don’t have to stay this way. Hawaii can and should put a renewed emphasis on expanding access to residents’ transportation options. Business owners and visitors would benefit almost immediately, as new economic development happens and older communities attract reinvestment.

That’s the verdict of a new collaborative report, “Leveraging State Agency Involvement in Transit-Oriented Development to Strengthen Hawaii’s Economy,” from Hawaii’s Office of Planning and Smart Growth America. Right now, Hawaii and its congested cities have a prime opportunity to implement plans for TOD, drive economic development, and restore the quality of life many expect from island living.

Best of all, Governor Neil Abercrombie has already set the wheels in motion, with the 2010 announcement of the New Day Plan, which envisions “livable communities that encourage walking, bicycling, carpooling, and using mass transit.” TOD can be key to meeting the plan’s economic, social and environmental goals.

Well-executed TOD reduces dependence on fossil fuels, protects open space and cultural resources through sustainable land use, helps advance education by better connecting students to educational facilities, and can allow retirees and elders to remain in their communities and “age in place.”

The unique nature of Hawaii, though, means that TOD efforts must be equally unique and well suited to the islands’ diversity of needs. Although much of Hawaii is relatively rural, the counties of Oahu, Hawaii, Maui and Kauai have population concentrations clustered in cities, towns and resort areas. Transit-oriented development principles can be leveraged in those areas in conjunction with existing bus service to connect Hawaii residents to businesses and residential neighborhoods, while saving taxpayers money in the process.

As a result, the state Office of Planning is now drafting a resolution for Abercrombie to sign as an executive policy, recognizing that TOD is a priority of state government as part of its smart growth efforts. The order would direct state agencies to work together toward promoting the wide range of benefits that can be achieved through smart growth and TOD.

“State agencies can use proximity to transit to make the public’s access to state services more convenient and economical,” Abercrombie says. “We can make getting to work easier and cheaper for our state employees. We can take advantage of the value transit adds to state property for the benefit our citizens.”

Presently, the state is in the midst of constructing the 20-mile Honolulu Rapid Transit system, which will link important Honolulu neighborhoods and attractions along an elevated rail line by 2019. The state government is a major property holder in Hawaii, and owns over 2,500 acres adjacent to the proposed rail stations. How the state utilizes this land will have a substantial impact on the direction and viability of TOD projects.

Rail, though, isn’t the only way for TOD projects to take hold on the island, explains Jesse Souki, director of the State of Hawaii Planning Department.

“One important way the state can take a more proactive role in facilitating TOD and walkable, smart growth communities,” Souki said, “is to prioritize existing state properties and other assets the state currently controls that are near transit, including high frequency bus service.”

In the short-term, TOD can begin to take hold throughout the state – not just Honolulu – by centering projects around existing bus service. Ideally, bus service could evolve to include fixed, permanent stations, like those of a bus rapid transit system. A service like that could set the stage for a fixed rail line as a replacement as population grows in the longer term.

“More permanent, high frequency bus transit stations could benefit from TOD,” Souki said. “This is particularly true for islands outside of Hawaii’s most populated island, Oahu, where rider capacity would not justify rail solutions at this time.”

TOD has proven to be a successful tool around the country in addressing many of the very same issues facing modern day Hawaii – high energy costs, heavy traffic congestion and lack of reliable transportation options. With progress being made on an impressive rail corridor, existing bus service throughout the state’s islands and strong support from Governor Abercrombie, Hawaii has an opportunity not just to confront its own challenges, but to be a model for TOD implementation across the country.