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: ##http://www.showbus.com/gallery/foreign/usa/thebus4.htm##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.

9 thoughts on Hawaii: Say “Aloha” To Transit-Oriented Development

  1. What Honolulu needs is to take a page from bicycle friendly cities like Portland. The few bicycle lanes here that exist are inadequate and incomplete. Laws against cycling on sidewalks in Waikiki makes bicyclists contend with oncoming buses and cars crowding them out of lanes. Car drivers are very inconsiderate to bicyclists, often asking why I’m not using the cyclist lane, which usually doesn’t exist or turn in the direction I want to. Roads are full of potholes and position of curbs hard to maneuver. Though it doesn’t help much for the long haul in more rural areas, bicycling is clean, energy efficient and low-cost, and therefore a very feasible solution for Honolulu.

  2. Except that the line is going to be operated by AnsaldoBreda equipment, which even the anal Calvinist Dutch and anal Janteloven Danes have trouble with:


    Although Danes do manage to keep their version ( http://intl.m.dk/ )of the system proposed for Hawaii up and running most of the time.  Then again, they are only an overnight truck-trip from Pistola, Italy.

    Pomaika`i !

  3. William: There is a good reason why cyclists should not ride on Waikiki sidewalks–they are very crowded with pedestrians, many of whom are tourists oblivious to traffic.

    Honolulu traffic has always been awful. Fifteen years ago I was routinely riding from Hawaii Kai to the U of Hawaii at Manoa faster than my university colleagues living in Hawaii Kai could drive there. Things have, predictably, gotten worse.

    I have no idea why cycling is not being pushed harder by Honolulu’s mayor and city council and by Gov. Abercrombie. We (the City and County, National Center for Bicycling and Walking, and the Hawaii Bicycling League) wrote a comprehensive bike plan in 1999 and updated it relatively recently, so its not for lack of doing the thinking. Too much push on TOD (i.e., rail) and not enough on human power?

    Given Hawaii’s mild climate, Honolulu’s somewhat linear layout on the south side of Oahu, and the Hawaii’ tradition of being outdoors, more should be done to get cycling into a double digit mode split. Now that Honolulu has earned this dubious “we are #1” distinction, perhaps folks will dust off those bike plans, not to mention their bikes, and get to it.


    Khal Spencer
    Los Alamos, NM
    HBL Life Member and former President 

  4. Just got back from Honolulu where my husband and I rented bikes and biked around quite a bit. First off, I saw no evidence of any light rail being built out, though I think it’s a fine idea and I certainly would’ve taken it to and from the airport if it had existed. I was happy to see many, many solar hot water panels on roof tops in Honolulu and quite a bit of solar PV as well. Which made me wonder, why isn’t Hawaii through its energy transition already and completely solar with only electric vehicles? For a state that must import all fossil fuels at a premium (with all funds spent on fossil fuels completely leaving the local economy) becoming self sufficient in terms of energy seems a no-brainer.  And being made up entirely of islands, in Hawaii the limited range of electric vehicles is not a problem. Also, a state that makes a large portion of its income attracting visitors through its natural beauty can only be enhanced by reducing the air and noise pollution that burning fossil fuels creates. I would think Hawaii would want to get away from nasty diesel buses (of which there were many) and loud, smelly motorcycles and scooters (which abounded) just as fast as possible.

    But on to biking in Honolulu. I would give the city a D+, largely because of the fine weather, abundant natural beauty, much flat terrain, and the fact some bike lanes exist. (Otherwise the score would be lower!) There is a reasonable bike map for Oahu provided by the Hawaii DOT on line, though I couldn’t find anywhere to buy a hard copy and of course the map the bike rental shop gave us was pathetic. Some of the bike routes in Honolulu were quite pleasant due to either bike lanes or wide streets where there was plenty of room to ride, and traffic wasn’t too fast. However, *twice* while we were riding along a marked bike route we were suddenly abandoned by any form of bike planning.  Returning from biking to Diamond Head, we were on a bike lane that abruptly ended on a one-way street that went in the opposite direction of where we wanted to go. Our only (legal) option was to get off our bike and walk a couple blocks on the sidewalk. A contraflow bike lane would’ve been very helpful here. Then, biking to Manoa Falls, we were on Oahu Ave (a very pleasant stretch of road where it parallels University Ave) that all of the sudden ended back on University Ave with no way to get across the busy road. No stop sign, not even a crosswalk, just a stream of fairly fast-moving traffic. There wasn’t even a sidewalk we could walk down to get to the next traffic light to cross the road. My husband darted across like a maniac, but I am unwilling to put my body in front of moving traffic with a hope and a prayer it won’t hit me. I was totally stuck until a nice driver stopped for me in one direction and then another driver reluctantly did the same from the other direction and I was able to cross. A bike route that gives bicyclists no way to safely get across the road is almost worse than no bike route at all. And even though there are bike routes on a map, there is almost no signage while on the streets.  Such signage to common tourist destinations would be extremely helpful to bicyclist tourists.

    And then there was McCully St., a horrible freeway-like monster that is actually listed as a bike route. Young Street, which we took to the state capitol area, is better, but once we got near the state capitol our only options were Beretania and King Streets, more awful freeway-like streets. Along Waikiki itself, the bike lanes are narrow, and because of the one-way nature of the streets, I saw a number of bicyclists going the wrong way down them because the bike lane going the correct direction was close to half a mile a way.  So in general, Honolulu has not completely ignored its bicyclists but it is not all that nice to them either.  In general I would say Honolulu drivers are not completely mean to bicyclists, although so much of the traffic is tourists it’s hard to know whether the driver that just almost brushed one’s elbow is local or not. I do think that people unused to driving around bicycles are aided by bike lanes as it makes it clearer where their car is not supposed to go.  Though we very much would’ve liked to bike all the way to Hanauma Bay (and the DOT map specified the road as a bike-friendly route), the bike rental shop emphatically advised we not do it because though there is some shoulder to ride on, the traffic is fast, unpleasant and dangerous. Very much a pity, and shows Hawaii’s commitment to cars rather than non-polluting forms of transport.

  5. I realize riding bicycles on sidewalks is dangerous for pedestrians (and cyclists should be held responsible for reckless driving), but I think that bicyclists on streets are at far greater danger (would be good if there were statistics on this) from cars. Just last week, I witnessed a cyclist crossing at a green light get slammed into by a car, and many people here I know say they have been injured/even crippled by accidents with cars, and that Hawaii’s no-fault car insurance does not compensate them for medical treatments. In Japan, the automobile driver is automatically assumed responsible for an accident with pedestrians and “weaker” forms of transportation. This kind of law in HI would force drivers to be more attentive to bicycle traffic on the sidewalk (outside Waikiki) and on the shoulder of the road (rather than honking and shouting at bicyclists). At least, the bicycle lanes in Waikiki could be bi-directional, so cyclists don’t have to go so far out their way to reach their destination. How best can bicyclists contribute to shaping transportation policy?

  6. You have many valid points that I agree with.  However, I want to stress the need to enforce of laws that deal with bicyclists.  Although there are many law abiding bicyclists that know what they are doing, I see way more idiots (for lack of a better term) riding their bikes like they own the road.  

    Unfortunately in Hawaii, there isn’t a lot of space for properly sized bike lanes or for bicycles on sidewalks.  However, that is the reality of the situation and because of that, I suggest pro-bicyclists should attempt to come up with a financially and physically feasible plan for designated bike paths before playing the blame game or relying on someone else to figure out a solution to their problems.

  7. Best I saw in Honolulu when I was there for my honeymoon in 2006 was articulated express buses, which we used to get around from places such as Waikiki to Pearl Harbor. They were slow, though! Didn’t get on a bike while I was there, unfortunately. From everything I’ve heard, including Karen’s post above, Hawaii isn’t much different from Florida–just perhaps a few years behind, but we see the same types of dead-end bike lanes and paths without crossings all over the Miami area. It doesn’t help that Hawaii DOT has had no bicycle/pedestrian coordinator for at least two years, and they don’t offer a competitive salary for the Professional Engineer that they require in that position. (Strangely, also not very different from Florida DOT with the salary.)

  8. Why do people always say there isn’t enough space for bike lanes? Before the automobile, there was plenty of space for bicycles and pedestrians. What we should be saying is that we gave too much space to automobiles and we should convert it back to bicycle use.

  9. It sounds like you had the typical Oahu experience on your bikes, it’s Oahu’s way of saying welcome and Aloha! You bring up extremely valid points that have been brought up and discussed by advocates and city/state officials. Things are changing very slowly and the sporadic bike lanes have been placed in the last 20 years. Why aren’t things moving faster? Your last line explains it all.
    As for the rail, it won’t be for another few years before you see any type of large construction being done in the city. Even if it were done, if you were like most vacationers and stayed in Waikiki, you would not be able to ride from the airport to your hotel. You would have to get off at the last stop, Ala Moana, and catch the bus or a taxi.

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