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How Did Traffic in Honolulu Get So Bad?

Honolulu's traffic is second-worst in the nation. How bad is it going to get? Is there any way out? How do we survive our commutes from hell? A comprehensive guide to an epic mess.


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Photo: Aaron Yoshino 


This is how it usually starts: squinting into the sun—those living on the West Side commute into sunrise in the morning and sunset in the evening.


He would have been out the door at 5:45, but it was his turn to pack lunch for the kids. Still, 6:15 should’ve been okay, only everybody on the road must’ve not packed their lunches last night, either, because at 6:55 he’s surfing a solid stream of red taillights, praying that the organism won’t stall, seize up, stop. And, please, no distractions ... Hey, look at the bulldozer! In the instant he takes his eyes off the road to check out the ’dozer in the rail construction zone he misses the car ahead the first time it taps its brakes. He sees it the second time, though, but is a second late in tapping his own brakes; so the car behind him brakes a second late, too, and the one after that. And the whole chain tightens up, slows, lurches. As he sits there and exhales, a rippling chain of cars for a couple of miles behind him hit their brakes hard, too. 


Meanwhile at the city’s traffic center, located in a nondescript building off the H-1 near King Street, as well as high up the Ko‘olau Range in the state’s H-3 bunker complex, The Watchers of The Screens nod their heads in recognition. 6:59 a.m. Let the gridlock begin. 


ALREADY O‘ahu is under siege: congestion on Nimitz, on the Pali and Likelike, for blocks around every freeway on- and off-ramp, clogging the approaches to the university, the public and private schools. Forlorn caravans creep through Waimānalo, Laniākea, along Kalaniana‘ole Highway. 


The ripples reach farther than most of us imagine. State Rep. Matt LoPresti recently described how, heading home to ‘Ewa Beach, “my Google will tell me to take the Pali to Kailua and then back to H-3 to ‘Ewa”—a 29-mile detour to avoid 7.9 miles of gridlock. Windward drivers might be surprised to know that Google is sending West Siders their way. Then again, many stacked at ramenlike road interchanges are from Hau‘ula, Lā‘ie, Kahuku. 


How bad is it, really?


Honolulu routinely lands in the annual top three “worst traffic in the USA” lists. Traffic info aggregator INRIX reports we spend an extra 60.8 hours a year in traffic, the worst in the nation. More than 50 percent of the workers living in the area stretching from Moanalua to Hau‘ula (including Pearl City, Central O‘ahu, ‘Ewa and Rural O‘ahu) leave home before 7 a.m., compared to 25 percent nationally. Many of us arrive at work an hour early just to escape the mess. 


Nationally, only 8.1 percent of commuters take 60 minutes or longer to reach their workplace. West Side commuters, on the other hand, routinely describe commutes in excess of an hour and, the farther west they go, well, two hours isn’t uncommon. A 75-minute commute is often cited as the point where people snap and change their lives: move, quit, relocate.


Around quitting time in side lots and parking garages, there’s often no point in waiting for drivers to back out. Many are evening commuters “doing the wait,” as one put it. Tablets and phones glowing, they sit in the dim light with seats reclined, listening to NPR, paying bills and answering emails, doing social media with children. Others give restaurants and bars their business; Murphy’s biggest night in recent memory was when the failure of a ZipperLane machine mired commuters in traffic for five, even seven hours.    


Percentage of People Commuting to Work 



Bus/ Bike/ Walk


Drive Alone


Source: U.S. Census Bureau 2013 American Community Survey



How did we get here?

Transportwise, O‘ahu is both physically blessed and challenged. On the plains and valley floors, roads came easy. But the Ko‘olau and Wai‘anae mountain ranges pushed peripheral roads right down to the water’s edge and eventually required transit tunnels to cut through. As roadways tried to expand, our lava bedrock proved to be a major impediment to construction. 


But the real causes of gridlock are personal consumer choices and community planning preferences. We’ve been on a car-buying binge: two-thirds of us drive alone, up 74.2 percent in the past 30 years, as  car ownership also soared 74.6 percent, according to the U.S. Census. Meanwhile, our population grew just 41 percent.


It didn’t help that our system of urban electric streetcars was dismantled, as happened all over the U.S. post-World War II. The difference was, on the Mainland they had room for roads that became four-, six-, even eight-lane highways, with cloverleaf on-ramps and off-ramps, wide shoulders and ample service roads. Not pretty, but they got the job done.  


Lovely O‘ahu has space issues. And planning issues. We didn’t plan for larger roads, or even parallel roads, when we could’ve. Dissatisfaction with public education elevated private schools (which 25 percent of our grade 1–12 students attend, compared to 11.3 percent for the U.S.); this adds cars and vehicle miles to our commutes. Now a generation is growing up that has no memory of a peaceful drive to the country.


Meanwhile, escalating housing prices push us farther and farther away from work. Only 46 percent of us live in what is  called the urban core, where 71 percent of the jobs are. A real estate rule of thumb: For every hour you add to your commute going west, you can add a bedroom to your dream house. 


Finally, the visitor industry fills our roads with bewildered tourists, as well as private tour buses, shuttles and trolleys, many of which run empty much of the time. “In a tourist town, convenience is everything,” says Ray McCormick, the state Department of Transportation highways administrator. 


What's Driving Gridlock

Why Traffic Backs Up

map: google earth Image © 2015 Digital Globe Image USGS Data USGS


441,988 of us driving alone (statewide); 400,000 more vehicles than registered drivers (statewide);  Few parallel/arterial highways to bleed pressure from gridlocked freeway, unlike on Mainland; Shortest on-ramps in the nation, which also cause backup into neighborhoods; 


A. Simultaneous construction projects for rail and H-1’s Pearl City viaduct/westbound contra-flow lane. The latter should’ve been completed before the former was begun, according to City Councilmember Kymberly Pine;

B. No signal synchronization west of Kapolei, due to lack of fiber-optic cable infrastructure, strands commuters without recourse;

C. 15 condos under construction;

D. 30,000 UH Mānoa students and staff, who maximize drop-off congestion at public and private schools—the latter’s 41,000 students* add vehicle miles and multiply trips.

Source: UH, hais *Statewide


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Honolulu Magazine May 2020