Another Way Home

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Money may not buy happiness, but it ought to buy possibilities. When I look at the public discussion on transit in Honolulu, the sums at play are staggering. The city is poised to spend $2.6 billion of its own money, plus another $1 billion from the federal government, to build a transit system that doesn’t reach the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa or Waikiki, two of the town’s biggest traffic magnets. Adding spurs to those areas would take the cost to $4.7 billion in today’s dollars, which the city says it can’t afford at all.

So, for the moment, I’ll stick with the $2.6 billion in city funds about to be spent. I’m amazed that, with $2,600,000,000 on the table, the traffic discussion got stuck on what kind of fixed, elevated transit system we’d build. Were those really our only choices? For that much money?

To be fair, the city did consider and reject other ideas, such as an undersea tunnel that would run from Kapolei to downtown, or building nothing at all. But the city never seemed to consider why we have traffic in the first place, and what we could do about it before we pour a single bucket of concrete. For example, couldn’t we:

Move the jobs closer to the people? For decades, Kapolei was our agreed-upon solution to O‘ahu’s traffic problem, a mirror of Honolulu on the ‘Ewa plain that would eliminate the problem of everyone driving in from the suburbs to Honolulu’s central job district. For $2.6 billion, the mayor could go to 2,600 Honolulu businesses, and say, “I’ll give you a million dollars to move your operations to Kapolei.” A million ain’t what it used to be, but it’s nothing to sneeze at. A free million? Who wouldn’t take the money and run to the Second City?

Move the people closer to their jobs? The market is already providing more downtown housing. Consider the 43-story condo Keola Lai, going up on South Street, with 350 units. It cost $118 million. For $4.1 billion, the city could build 22 such buildings, putting 7,700 units on the market. Since the average household size in Hawai‘i is 2.57 people, this could take nearly 20,000 residents, and all their commuting, off the freeway. Oh, and for $2.6 billion, the city could give these away for free, in a lottery, to the people it needs to relocate out of leeward and central O‘ahu. Imagine this Mililani conversation: “But daddy, I don’t want to share a bedroom in an apartment!” Daddy: “Too bad. It’s free. We’re moving to town.”

Find another way to get around? The stated goal of government transit plans is often to “get people out of their cars.” Well, my car dealership has a pretty handy way of doing this—the courtesy shuttle. Imagine an islandwide fleet of free, on-demand vehicles, with computer-assisted dispatch to match up the routes of multiple passengers. Like a free city taxi that might also stop to pick up other people in your area who are going where you’re going. Of course, Honolulu would call it the TheCourtesyShuttle.

For $1 billion, the city could buy a fleet of environmentally friendly, four-passenger hybrid Saturn VUE Green Line SUVs, at $24,000 each. In fact, for $1 billion, it could buy 41,666 of them.

For another $1 billion, the city could cover all the fees, fuel, maintenance and insurance for this fleet, and keep each vehicle on the road 16 hours a day, with two drivers earning $40,000 a year each, plus benefits. For a billion, the city could operate such a fleet this way for 9,009 years.

That would still leave $600 million to build parking garages for the fleet, and its dispatch center.

Sounds wacky, maybe, and my numbers are admittedly crude. But, TheCourtesyShuttle would be more attractive to more people than what we’re really going to spend those billions on—it would offer the door-to-door benefits of car ownership and approximate the on-demand quality of a taxi. It would be communitarian, yet semiprivate. Unlike rail, it would be a pervasive transit system, able to go anywhere you are, instead of making you go where the train or the freeway is. It could also adjust to our changing patterns of living and working over the years. How many single-occupant cars could we knock off the road if we had this alternative?

Looks like we’ll never know.