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.
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



What’s next? 

In June, a series of town meetings on the West Side evoked “howls of pain,” in the words of City Councilmember Brandon Elefante. “It’s all you can hear at the town meetings,” says Michael Formby, director of the city’s Department of Transportation Services. “They’re just furious. It’s palpable. And it’s going to get worse. We have to deal with it—the state gets it, the city gets it. We’re working with the business community so they get it.”


“I think there is a sense of urgency,” says Elefante, who, after his town meetings, introduced a resolution urging employers to offer flextime, carpooling, bus passes and more. It complements an existing bill, HB 1010, signed by the governor in June, that would offer incentives for vanpooling and other transit options by allowing workers to deduct commuting costs from their taxable income.


Long term, demographics may make things better, a little. The number of 15- to 19-year-olds registering to drive in Hawai‘i declined 18 percent from 2008 to 2013, from 29,171 to 23,805. Rail and transit-oriented development may stem the trend of driving alone. 


But relief is a long way down the road. In fact, as rail construction gets closer to Downtown, traffic is likely to get a lot worse. “From 2016 to 2018, there will be construction on the entire route, guideways being placed on columns and right-of-way clearance,” says DTS director Formby. The city is launching a major push this month around its GoAkamai traffic app, which is adding push-alert text capability in time for the opening days of UH and private schools. But algorithms can’t add lanes or subtract cars; something has got to give.


Audiobooks, Bluetooth phone calls, soothing talk shows on the radio—none of it can distract the hyperactive driver on H-1 who feels she’s losing her mind. She dials her real estate agent to put the house on the market. Just then the Watcher swings his joystick, peers at Screen 80, and punches in a code to the intersection down at street level, where the traffic exiting H-1 is pooled at a long red. At the Watcher’s command, the normal two-minute green-light cycle is lengthened to four. Once cars begin to move on the surface street, the freeway follows suit a minute or two later. Next, the Watcher orders a “gawk screen” for the bulldozer; hopefully by morning it will be hidden from rubberneckers behind orange plastic sheeting. He knows something else, a new distraction, will take its place. But, for the moment, traffic is moving again, if barely, so that when the real estate agent picks up, the driver shouts, “Can’t talk right now—gotta drive.” She’ll stick it out another day.


The Housing Equation: Time Vs. Money 

The farther you go out from Downtown, the cheaper housing gets. But you pay in time. Mākaha’s got great bargains, but the commute is an endurance test. Town is a breeze, but you’ll pay the price. What’s more important to you?  


*adjusted for Kawamoto sales // Research: Ikaika Ramones. Source: Honolulu Board of Realtors, MLS


What Time Do We Leave For Work?

You gotta get up pretty early in the morning to live on the West Side. In Tantalus, not so much. This chart shows the percentage of residents in each neighborhood by departure time. Nationally, 31 percent leave for work before 7 a.m.;  on O‘ahu, it's 46 percent.



12–5 A.M.

5–6 A.M.

6–7 A.M.

7–8 A.M.

8–9 A.M.







‘Ewa Beach






Central ‘Oahu






Moanalua to Pearl City






Nu‘uanu to Kalihi 






Tantalus to Waikīkī






East Honolulu to Kapahulu 












Rural O‘ahu







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




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: 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



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.” 



Road Tales

Shivon Alexander 

Age: 33
Occupation: Medical Assistant in Makiki
Commute Time: 1 hour from ‘Ewa
In The Car: Four People
Photos: Odeelo Dayondon

​​“My husband and I moved to Mililani, then back to town because of the commute. The rent in town is atrocious. So we bought a house in ‘Ewa. 


“My husband leaves at 4 a.m. to go to the gym and then work. I get the kids up at 5:30 to leave by 6; all three go to school in town, different schools. I pack lunch for them every day. I drop the first no later than 6:45, the oldest before 7:10, the middle one by 7:30. I have to get to work by 8. Going home, two children ride with Dad, and I shoot over to my son’s preschool by 5:30. I’m usually home by 6:30. (I do drive a little over the speed limit.)


“I don’t mind it, actually. That’s the time I get to talk with the keiki. We do a lot of chit-chatting. 


“It’s just the way you look at things. What makes the difference is I’m not paying someone else’s mortgage. I’m going to my house, my home.” 



Shaun Chillingworth

Age: 33
Occupation, Public relations specialist in downtown area
Commute Time: 55 minutes from waikele
In The Car: One Person 

“I just recently moved out to Waikele from Honolulu. My wife, Jessica, is from Waipahu, and it was a good opportunity to get some more living space for us and be closer to her family. Sometimes the trade-off is worth it. Other days, like the ZipLane fiasco, I definitely question whether it was worth trading my 6-minute bike commute for hour-plus days on the road.


“My wife and I carpool both to save gas and to take advantage of the designated lanes. We stick to her schedule for the most part. If she’s traveling off-island then I don’t carpool; I avoid traffic at all costs, and usually don’t leave until after 8 a.m. I won’t leave town until after 6:30 p.m., but early enough to avoid construction closures.


“Rubbernecking is horrible. There’s nothing worse than being backed up in the ZipperLane, only to quickly accelerate after passing an accident in the opposite direction. It’s crazy! We can save each other so much time if we just pay attention to the road ahead.”

—As told to Ikaika Ramones



John Woodward 

Age: 62
Occupation, Vanilla farmer in Lā‘ie, woodworker in Kailua
Commute Time: 1 hour from Kaimukī to Lā‘ie, 20 minutes from Lā‘ie to Kailua
In The Car: One Person 

“If a leaf falls on the freeway, it’s going to back up traffic. Kamehameha Highway and Kalaniana‛ole Highway are very narrow, only two lanes [in some areas]. If a tree falls on the freeway, or if there’s an accident, I’m done. 


“Earlier this year, while driving along Kamehameha Highway near Waiāhole, I saw a tank of asphalt roll off a truck and onto a neighboring car, killing the driver only 15 spots ahead of me. If I had left work 15 cars earlier, that could have been me. I turned around before the backup got worse, taking a route through Hale‛iwa; but then there was roadwork, so it took me four hours to get home. It was backed up all the way from Waikāne to Valley of the Temples. I have friends living in that area who said it took them eight hours to get home that day.


“I used to get crazy, but I’ve been doing this for so long, I just get in the car and go.”

—As told to Ikaika Ramones      



Darren Flores

Age: 55 
Occupation: Advertising Executive in WaikĪkĪ 
Commute Time: 2 hours from ‘Aiea
In The Car: One Person 

“When I moved here from Maui, it was stressful because my commute went from 15 minutes a day to two hours. Now I’m grateful I don’t live in Mililani or I’d be commuting three hours a day. 


“My commute from ‘Aiea is worth not being in a smaller condo looking at the side of a building in town. It’s not worth getting a larger townhouse in Mililani and giving up an additional hour a day to commuting.


“When I go to pick up my son at school, the drive adds to the anticipation of seeing him. Once I get him, it’s all good; the traffic works for me because he’s stuck in the car talking to me for 30 minutes. So my ‘fix’ for traffic does not attempt to change the time on the road, but to appreciate that it’s so long.”




Honolulu Unzipped

Is traffic worse than ever?

Photo: Aaron Yoshino 


2010: The Warning 

No. 2, Worst Commutes in U.S.

Lunalilo Freeway (H-1) eastbound, S. Vineyard Boulevard/Ward Avenue

Length of worst bottleneck: 0.82 miles

Weekly hours of congestion in worst bottleneck: 36 

Speed of worst bottleneck when congested: 16.4 mph

Source: INRIX; The Daily Beast


2012: The Year Traffic Got Bad Everywhere

“We started seeing an increase in automobiles on the road, increased trips, no down time. I used to be able to get on the freeway on Saturday or Sunday and it would flow. Now, it’s just crazy. Flow is an exception.” 

—Michael Formby, director, Honolulu Department of Transportation Services


2013-14: Gridlock

“Nobody saw this kind of population coming. In the ’60s, our average daily traffic was 20,000 vehicle trips. Planning people in the 1970s said, ‘We think it’s going up to 60,000, so let’s double that.’ Today our daily count on the H-1 ‘Aiea conduit is 250,000. The eastbound to town and from Windward is 150,000. We’re trying to adjust capacity to volume. But we cannot build our way out of congestion.”

—Edwin Sniffen, deputy director, state Department of Transportation


“There was a time when nobody could get out of ‘Ewa because every road was under construction. Literally. The city and the state, these guys hadn’t talked to each other. It became a part of my life where I would call the traffic departments and ask, ‘Do you have any projects going on in my district this week?’”

—Kymberly Pine, Honolulu City Councilmember 


2015: ZipperGate

“During the week of Carmageddon, with the cell phone violations, I was probably the most hated man in Honolulu.”

—Maj. Darren Izumo, Commander, Traffic Division HPD (all citations were forgiven, as is Major Izumo)


Traffic Apps

Real-time traffic conditions, now with push alerts so you can plan your commute over coffee, 


Real-time traffic conditions, with crowdsourced reporting on accidents and congestion from your fellow commuters,


Driven by data, may merge with Waze



HPD recommends this for accident and road reports,



Real-time accidents and  incidents await you at



5 Useful Traffic Hacks 

Consider Giving These a Try:


Uber, Lyft – These short-haul taxi substitutes are gaining popularity, but the cab companies are not pleased. 


EnterpriseShare – rental cars by the hour using an automated log-in from a website—brilliant. What took them so long?


Car2Go – in talks with the city at press time, a setup similar to Enterprise’s except you pick up the car where the last user left it (at a convenient place, one assumes). Downside: uses parking spaces to store inventory.


BikeShare Hawai‘i –180 stations with 1,700 public-access bikes for short trips are slated to be available early in 2016.



Who you gonna call?


Freeway Services Patrol: 841-HELP (4357) for gas, tow or push. Call the white trucks.



City Hot Line: 768-7777; state Hot Line: 536-7852; HART (city rail project roads and sites): 566-2299