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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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Ground Control to Major Traffic

City's transportation services director, Michael Formby 
Photo: Aaron Yoshino


Sitting before what looks like the most boring cineplex in the world—a wall of  widescreens devoted entirely to freeway traffic, on- and off-ramps and major intersections—the city’s transportation services director Michael Formby (above) and chief of signals and technology Ty Fukumitsu talked traffic mitigation with us. Afterward, all we could think about was “the green flush”—the most exciting of promised new traffic technologies on the near horizon. But to get there from here, much depends on a new facility that only just broke ground: the Joint Traffic Management Center. 


HM: The completion of the new center is still two years away, and rail construction is upon us. Are you biting your nails?    

MF: I’d prefer to focus on where we’re going, and that is to a better traffic system in the future. Right now, however, the reality is that things are going to get more challenging. We have highway construction, road repaving projects, rail coming to the urban core—it’s about to get much more challenging.


Right now, we react to events. Something happens, like Zippergate, we’re stuck responding to it. Our goal is to put into place systems that aren’t reactive, but are proactive. 


The old way was everyone stayed in their own silos, including us here, and the state [Department of Transportation] in their center on top of the H-3, and the police at their headquarters. What I’ve seen happening lately, we’re all realizing we’re part of the same system. The truth is, we’re all connected. So we’ve started communicating now.


HM: Do you have an example? 

MF: The HPD used to shut down the freeway for hours after an accident. For the most part, they are now more sensitive to the impact, and they try to minimize the closure of lanes. It’s a different policy that reflects a road system near capacity. The state, when it does construction, used to close down lanes to let fresh concrete cure without the bounce you get from passing traffic. They’ve moved to quick-cure concrete.


HM: If our roads are near capacity, how can a new traffic center help?

MF: With the JTMC, we’re going proactive. Information and decision-makers in one place, a two-story room with nine television screens and a big command screen in the middle, with individual consoles for the city, the state, the first responders. There will be dedicated space for each of them, plus lockers, showers, break rooms. 


HM: And you will be there 24/7, controlling traffic?

TF: Right, though currently, out of 850 intersections, we only control 340, all in the urban core and high-volume corridors. So while the new center is being built, the plan is also to grow connectivity.

MF: We’ve got funding in the 2016 budget for traffic mitigation specialists to train us in advance of the JTMC’s opening. 

TF: You have to learn to look at the whole system. You need engineers trained in traffic signal synchronization techniques, because when you do one thing, if affects the whole system—there’s a domino effect. 

MF: When the JTMC is up and running, we’ll be able to flush the system. I can’t wait to see that. We could turn every light to green if we had to. Green the whole island of O‘ahu. Right now Ty or an operator has to go to an individual light and enter a code. 


HM: Anything we can do while waiting for the green flush?

MF: We advise people not to abandon the freeway for the surface streets. 

TF: The worst cheat you can do is try to cut in at the head of cars stacked up in a turn lane. You’re not only blocking the lane behind you, it’s causing a ripple effect way back. If you missed the turn, go circle around the block.


What’s The Fix? 

Future historians of O‘ahu will mark Sunday, June 28, 2015, as the day rail construction moved from farmland outside Kapolei into its first neighborhood, Waipahu. Given the paralysis that has rippled through the entire transportation system so far, the clamor for solutions will surely rise. Whether it will be heard—and acted on in a community spirit, instead of every man for himself—may be the defining question for an entire state.The following solutions range from the immediately actionable, which are listed first, to proposals involving large-scale social engineering, including some pipe dreams.



Start your morning with real-time information. Don’t rely on TV or the radio. Program your smartphone for alerts.


Get in the loop. Start using Waze, Google Traffic, Nixle and GoAkamai—all of them. Your commuting data will help bolster the intelligence of the algorithms. Your own intel will improve. Your smart choices will help traffic flow.


Buy a magnetized holder for your smartphone. Stick it to your car’s dashboard above the radio. Now, when you commute, you can pull up your route as you drive without violating the law, or driving into the car in front of you. “Just don’t put the magnet in your pocket with a credit card or it’ll wipe your data clean,” says City Councilmember Kymberly Pine, who first told us about this nifty move.


Use your voice. If you’re in favor of transit fixes, don’t be shy. Make yourself heard.



Express buses running in separate lanes are a major traffic-calming feature around the world, including one currently running from ‘Ewa Beach to Waikīkī that Pine championed on behalf of her hotel-worker constituents. (“They were getting fired because TheBus would get stuck in traffic,” she says.) UH urban planning professor and international traffic expert Karl Kim says the BRT he saw in Jakarta on a recent visit “was the most interesting development that was cheap to implement.”


“Double-decker buses on exclusive bus lanes can move more than 110,000 people per hour,” according to a recent report. (That’s what O‘ahu’s rail promises to move in a day.)


The Odds: BRT will happen as gridlock worsens. But studies in the U.S. show a reluctance to take the bus due to class issues; the bias shows up in planners and politicians, who tend to want to be associated with glamour projects like trains and metros. But with freeways unable to expand, single-occupant vehicles may lose a lane as it’s dedicated to running express buses. “I’m definitely open to adding more express buses to Downtown and Waikīkī from the West Side, especially if there is more demand for the service,” says City Councilmember and transportation chair Joey Manahan.



You are seeing a lot of trolleys, buses and shuttles crowding the road. A lot of them are empty and, yes, the city knows it. “Although theoretically regulated by the Public Utilities Commission, nobody controls the capacity and number,” says Michael Formby, director of city transportation services. “When we meet with the Waikīkī groups, the No. 1 issue is complaints about trolleys, buses and shuttles. We’ve told them, ‘Either you regulate yourselves, or we will.’”



In June, Gov. David Ige signed HB 1010 to boost vanpooling, bicycling and public transit. It authorizes the counties to adopt an ordinance requiring employers to offer employees specified commuter benefits options. While not making an overnight impact, this is a shift expected to bear lasting benefits over time.


The Odds: Notice how it allows the counties to require extending benefits? That’s progress. If the public wants it, this will happen; it’s just a matter of when the howls of pain get loud enough.



The shipyard at Pearl Harbor starts at 6:30 a.m. instead of 7:30 to lessen commuter pressure on the system. Why not ask UH Mānoa to move class start times later? Pros: A 9 a.m. class start time would shift 30K vehicle trips out of rush hour and take effect immediately—imagine school-vacation-style commutes year-round. Cons: Disruption to staff and working students. The Odds: This could be the year. The idea has been floated by councilmembers, transport officials and many others; it would seem to be one of the most effective and feasible measures on the table. But the faculty at Mānoa has resisted. Perhaps it can be sold as a temporary four-year shift until rail is complete. Added benefit: This could help boost public opinion of UH. 



Why not, if it works in the morning? Because it would cost $1.7 million a year and double the wear and tear on the 17-year-old ZipperLane machines, which, you may recall, have had maintenance issues. The Odds: The extra lanes added to H-1 make this unnecessary, say state transportation officials. Yet it may happen if people yell really loud, in which case brace yourself for Zippergate 2.



This seems like low-hanging fruit, at first glance. Let people work from home. Back offices, creative outfits and other jobs that don’t involve face time ought to shift hours in order to take cars off the road. But we’re a tourist economy, and a service economy, which means we need people staffing hotels, restaurants, shops—all during normal business hours. The same problems affect flextime, already in use by state and private offices. 



“We can’t build our way out of congestion," says Edwin Sniffen, deputy state transportation director. The current construction on H-1 from Hālawa to Pearl City is the last lane expansion. Forever? “We just don’t have anywhere left to go without resorting to eminent domain and taking people’s houses.” That goes for Kalaniana‘ole Highway as well. “If we cannot maintain what we have, then we shouldn’t push forward on any newer facilities.” 



Over-dub the existing lanes? The Odds: Nil. “It would cost at least $2 billion and be just as disruptive as rail construction,” says city transportation services director Formby. “Remember, we have a $260 million annual budget of which 65 percent goes to renovation and maintenance—statewide.” 


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Honolulu Magazine July 2019