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Traffic Disaster Master Karl Kim Explains Honolulu’s Carmageddon For You

AUWĒ! A top world expert doesn’t mince words when asked who’s responsible for our horrible Honolulu traffic.


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Karl Kim, the executive director of the NDPTC. 
Photo: Aaron Yoshino 


As the newly appointed chair of the National Disaster Preparedness Consortium (NDPC), Karl Kim brings a lot to the table. This includes the more than $13.8 million in federal, state and international grants he has received to study transportation, traffic safety, and environmental and disaster management.  Kim is also executive director of the National Disaster Preparedness Training Center (NDPTC) and professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at UH Mānoa.

When contacted in Jakarta, home of “the worst traffic in the world,” he asked that HONOLULU only submit only two questions due a poor Internet connection and a hectic schedule that included discussing disaster preparedness, sea level rise, coastal flooding and research with the Indonesian government as well as the Sultan of Tidore. Over a period of several days, however, Kim generously answered two more questions and expanded on his thoughts in additional emails.


SEE ALSO: How Did Traffic in Honolulu Get So Bad? 


Space considerations in the print edition required that we make a selection of Kim’s remarks, which included an opening statement—sort of a state-of-the-state assessment from a disaster preparedness and traffic point of view.


Here we run the opening statement in its entirety, followed by the questions and answers, and a link supplied by professor Kim. The parts that were excerpted for the print edition were run on page 113 in the August 2015 issue as part of the “Carmageddon” cover story. 


HONOLULU would like to thank professor Kim for his candor and willingness to go on the record as a public service.


KARL KIM: Here’s my statement.  


In spite of tremendous opportunities, resources and efforts, transportation planning in Honolulu has been an abysmal failure. Instead of taking a systems approach, integrating land-use development, new technologies and innovative ideas, we suffer from being “behind the curve,” implementing decades-old ideas and trying to ram a square peg into a round hole. [As in the case of the] Superferry and TMT, there has been poor leadership, pathetic engagement of stakeholders, and a winner-takes-all approach to complex planning problems. These are huge public investments that demand rigorous and innovative approaches to joint planning, development, and true shared governance. Otherwise, there will be winners and losers and the community as a whole suffers.  


The devil truly is in the details. Many of the details are being managed by faceless outside consultants rather than in a transparent, open, community learning process. 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 Transportations 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. This would require a much greater emphasis not just on data collection, but also building local capacity to understand problems, to design solutions and to work toward continuous learning, engagement and design. 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.  


HM: How did Honolulu and O‘ahu get this way? Did our road system evolve in a typical fashion, or was there some distorting, deforming event, decision, fork in the road? 

KK: We have a project mentality. It's just about road-widening here or off-ramp there or [else a] pavement project, rather than an integrated view of transportation, land use and development. People [just] want to get their permits. We've stopped taking community planning and development seriously. We've dismantled the public planning functions of government and have privatized much of the planning and development. We've become obsessed with property rights and the mismanagement of government resources. We've abandoned the notion of the public interest, the shared common challenges and opportunities of building and maintaining and preserving important natural and cultural and environmental values. Without this shared commitment to community planning and focusing on the quality of life in Honolulu, we will be always doing catch-up and clean-up.


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