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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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Karl Kim

Interview With A Traffic Disaster Master

Photo: Aaron Yoshino 


Lively, engaged, outspoken, Karl Kim is a man of action in the world of gridlock. Chair of the National Disaster Preparedness Consortium and executive director of its training center, the professor of urban and regional planning at UH Mānoa emailed us while in Indonesia, where, among other things, he was advising the Sultan of Tidore. 


HM: What aren’t we seeing in the big picture of O‘ahu traffic?

KK: Traffic is a good thing. It shows that people are busy. The increase in traffic shows that our economy is doing well. But we need to think more about how best to do traffic management. … We are the most isolated place in the planet. We are exposed to multiple hazards and threats: earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes and man-made disasters. A robust, resilient transportation system is essential to our survival. … If on a good day we have massive congestion problems, what happens when we have an earthquake or a hurricane? 


HM: How did Honolulu and O‘ahu get this way?

KK: There has been poor leadership, pathetic engagement of stakeholders, and a winner-takes-all approach to complex planning problems. 


HM: Are we forever behind the 8-ball now?

KK: Right now I’m in Jakarta, which has the worst traffic in the world. The average vehicle speed is only 5 mph. Every time I come here it is getting worse and worse. So our problems in Honolulu pale in comparison. But, in Jakarta, they are building an underground metro for half the costs of our fixed-rail system. In addition, like most other cities in the world, they are also building a light rail system: in this case, 30 kilometers long (19.8 miles) for only $720 million (Ed: HART’s heavy rail system will run 20 miles for an estimated $5.6 to $9 billion). But the most interesting development, which was cheap to implement, was the bus rapid transit (BRT) project. [Dedicated express bus lanes for commuters] are a low-cost, flexible, innovative solution. 


HM: What can we do personally?

KK: We need to debunk the myth of the outside expert. One of the first things I learned about transportation planning is that everyone is an expert. Local knowledge about road conditions, peak travel times, congestion, speed, etc. is not just in the Departments of Transportation and their consulting firms, but it is known and used by people who drive and commute and rush to and from work and school and manage getting to their activities. As an Island community, we have an opportunity to truly understand and model and develop traffic solutions.


HM: You almost sound optimistic.

KK: There are stunning new technologies in mapping, visualization and monitoring of movements through smartphones, GPS, remote sensing, real-time delivery of information that could be used collectively to optimize our travel decision-making. So we could first and foremost use our existing resources much more effectively. We don’t invest enough in science and technology and integrate it with public policies and decision-making.


A full transcript of Kim’s remarks can be found at bit.ly/hntraffic




As gridlock tightens its grip, and frustration kicks in, people are responding with a sense of urgency. Some of it is reactive, some is creative and some is, well, aggressive. Here’s a sampling of the Good, the Bad and the Not-So-Akamai.



More Lanes to the Rescue

Edwin Sniffen, deputy director, state DOT:

“Right now, the Zipper leaves only one westbound lane open by 7 a.m. By September, we’ll have punched a new lane through on the H-1 going west. So we’ll have two lanes going contraflow. We’ll also see the benefit in the evening—four lanes for the West Side going home.” (The DOT also has expanded the Pearl City viaduct.) 


The Lunalilo area freeway re-striping added a lane in each direction as of August 2014, reconstructing and resurfacing “one of the most heavily traveled corridors in the state …  in less than 11 months.” 


We Lead the Nation in Alternative Commuting

We do? It’s true. The 2013 U.S. Census American Community Survey ranks us at the top for carpooling (13.5 percent vs. 9.4 percent), biking (4.9 percent vs. 1.9 percent) and walking (4.2 percent vs. 2.8 percent) to work. (All stats statewide.) 


We Have Gridlocksmiths

Maj. Darren Izumo, commander, Honolulu Police Department Traffic Division:

“If an accident happens during rush hour, we first send a solo bike officer to report. It’s faster to send a motorcycle; they don’t get stuck in traffic. It’s not uncommon for a single motorcycle officer to get a stalled vehicle safely across multiple lanes of freeway traffic in order to keep it flowing. If something major goes down, like a car stuck, from Kalihi to Kunia we call on our Freeway Services Patrol—the white tow trucks. If you’re out of gas, they’ll give you gas, do minor repairs such as pulling a fender out so you can move your vehicle, or give you a jump or a push—anything to help. It’s a lot better for clearing accidents than it was before. And the federal government pays for it all.”

Freeway Services Patrol: 841-HELP (4357)


We Have Complete Streets

Honolulu passed a Complete Streets ordinance in 2013; the nationwide approach to urban design creates safer and more diverse commuting choices, while “calming traffic,” to use transport lingo. The two “pedestrian scramble” crosswalks on Kalākaua Avenue in Waikīkī are an example; so is the use of roundabouts, protected bike lanes like the one on King Street, the bike-sharing plan to start up in 2016, car share services like Enterprise CarShare (up and running) and Car-to-Go (in talks), walkable communities such as Kaka‘ako and the recent installation of 52,000 new LED streetlights for safer night driving.  


More Jobs Going West

Kymberly Pine, city councilmember:

“If you live on the West Side, don’t take that job in town; find one closer to home. That’s why I started a jobs site: hireleeward.com. There are 50,000 jobs on the West Side, some really well-paid, but companies weren’t advertising them in ‘Ewa and Wai‘anae.”



We’re Carpooling Less, Not More

Although we lead the nation in alternative, or multimodal, commuting, that trend is shrinking, not growing. We’re carpooling less, biking less and walking less than we used to. Sorry. 


Cars Keep Getting Bigger 

A Honda Civic Hatchback in 1973 was 139.8 inches long; in 2008, 168 inches. Sales of full-size (half-ton) and heavy duty (three-quarters ton) pickup trucks far outpace those for compact pickups, many lines of which have been discontinued. And, as the price of gas fell in 2015, so did sales of hybrids, electric vehicles and smaller cars. 


House Prices Are Pushing Commuters Outward

As housing becomes less affordable for working families, many accept the tradeoff of a longer commute for a home.



We’re driving faster, even if it’s more congested. “The serious accident numbers this year (as of June 23) show that where speed is involved, 7 out of 29 were fatalities, whereas alcohol was involved in only three fatalities. Speed is more involved than alcohol now.”

Maj. Darren Izumo, commander, Traffic Division


“From what we see on the screens at the traffic center and from what we hear at community meetings, drivers now are more aggressive, and drivers now choose to break the rules. A lot of illegal left turns and U-turns. In cars, people seem to feel a certain anonymity, sitting behind their glass windows.”

Michael Formby, director, DTS


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Honolulu Magazine June 2020