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.
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.


Traffic in Jakarta. 
Photos: Karl Kim 


HM: You’ve written on how data can be used to obscure realities as well as illuminate them. My question: What aren’t we seeing in the big picture of O‘ahu traffic in terms of severity, duration, eventual relief (if any)? Is there a master plan that makes sense of our traffic future, or are we forever behind the 8-ball now? 

KK: Actually, traffic is a good thing. It shows that people are busy. Coming and going. 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 need to collect and process data on not just traffic congestion, but also accidents, and fuel and time use, and the economic and social costs of delay and commuting. 


HM: Has another city of our size and complexity (island, water, mountains, economic base) coped successfully with a car-centric society and culture? Is there a model that offers hope for our traffic situation?

KK: Funny you should ask this question … Right now I'm in Jakarta, which has the worst traffic in the world. There's about 10 million [people] in the city but more than 28 million in the region. This study rated cities across the world and found that the absolute worst in terms of traffic was Jakarta. The average driver stops and starts something like 33,000 times a year, which is two times the number in New York City. The average vehicle speed is only 5 mph. Every time I come here it is getting worse and worse. With not just more cars but also more motorcycles and mopeds and increased development and urbanization and congestion. So our problems in Honolulu pale in comparison.  


In Jakarta they are building an underground metro for half the cost 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. This [dedicated express bus lanes for commuters] was a low cost, flexible, innovative solution. As bus technology improves, there will be more advances and uses of this travel mode.


There are many examples of cities that have grappled successfully with innovative transportation solutions. In the United States, everyone looks to Portland, Oregon with its combination of light rail, streetcar and even an aerial tram, which is a novel idea, for solving the transport needs.  


One of the best examples I've come across is the city of Brisbane, which has one of the largest bus systems in world and [has] integrated expansion of the bus system along with bike lanes, pedestrian paths and other travel modes. We should be pursuing these ideas to promote multimodal alternatives to driving. Places like Washington, D.C. and Chicago and other cities have done much more to promote alternatives to driving.   


More than a decade ago … Seoul [set out to] both beautify and create functionality through design. They dismantled a major highway and replaced it with a stream project; this was the Cheonggyecheon project. This is the type of innovative and strategic project that we need in Hawai‘i. We need to focus on land use, creating people spaces, improving environmental quality, boosting pedestrian spaces and also handling infrastructure needs.  




HM: Due to your National Disaster Preparedness Training Center role, I have a specific question regarding disaster preparedness and traffic. I’ve seen a few tsunami evacuations in recent years and have heard of one in 1994 that apparently spurred a rethinking of strategies, including one for sheltering in place in Waikīkī. With hurricanes also now a concern, with last year’s crop still fresh in our minds, and the El Niño heating up this year, my question would be not about evacuating per se—because I assume we would have time for warnings—but about road and transport infrastructure damage and recovery. Many of our roads snake along the water’s edge. Downtown and the harbor, airport, Kaka‘ako, etc. are at sea level, basically. Do we have a forecast of how long the city and state would be crippled and to what extent? (I’ve heard the 40 days figure.) I guess this would come under the rubric: ultimate gridlock.

KK: These topics are hugely important. We are the most isolated place on the planet. We are exposed to multiple hazards and threats: earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes and manmade disasters. A robust, resilient transportation system is essential to our survival. It's about getting out of harm’s way. It's about ensuring that first responders and other emergency services can reach and rescue and serve people in good times but also when disasters strike. If on a good day we have massive congestion problems, what happens when we have an earthquake or a hurricane? Building a safe, resilient community begins with making sure that transportation networks function and can be easily repaired and we can ensure mobility and accessibility both within our communities and between them.  


Here is a video on the topic, a show the Discovery Channel did on the NDPTC. The first part of the show features Cambridge Systematics, a company I worked for as a grad student when I was at MIT many years ago, and their current work on transport and disasters.