As the Nation Turns, Hawaii is Still Driven

Ever since the rise of the Model-T more than 100 years ago, cars have shined as potent symbols of independence, status and freedom. But that image seems to be losing its allure in America. Recent studies show that, after nearly 60 years of annual growth, driving is declining across the country. The downward trend is holding steady even as the U.S. economy rebounds.

“Driving is down about 7 percent from its peak in 2005,” says Micheline Maynard, director of the Reynolds Center for Business Journalism at Arizona State University and a national transportation expert. She points to economic constraints, increased bike use, urbanization and the rise of public transportation as factors contributing to the decline. “What we’re seeing is people using a portfolio of transportation choices rather than thinking that their only choice is to own a car and drive it.” Steering the trend are 18- to 34-year-olds: A study this year by U.S. PIRG showed driving by millennials fell 25 percent between 2001 and 2009.

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Meanwhile, Hawaii is headed in the opposite direction. Rather than declining, driving is hitting new peaks: Vehicle miles of travel (VMT), a key driving indicator, has risen each year after a brief post-recession dip in 2009. It’s now almost 15 percent higher than in 2009.

“Hawaii’s driving never really went down – it just flattened out and then started going up again as opposed to the mainland, which made a U-turn,” observes Panos Prevedouros, who teaches civil engineering at UH-Manoa and chairs the freeway operations simulation subcommittee of the Transportation Research Board, a division of the National Research Council. He projects that Hawaii’s thriving economy and tourism sector will buoy VMT even higher.

The fact that Hawaii is bucking the national trend invites a closer look at the reasons behind driving’s continued rise and at viable transportation alternatives. It also raises social, economic and environmental questions for a state that imports more than 90 percent of its energy, primarily from fossil fuels. On a broader scale, reliance on personal vehicles influences urban planning and land-use policies that are shaping communities across the Islands. In essence, how people travel goes to the heart of living and working in Hawaii and our quality of life.

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Trading Long Drives for Short Walks

A couple of years ago, Matt Honda, 31, was spending three hours a day in the round-trip commute from his home in Waipahu to his job in downtown Honolulu. He finally got fed up with the time spent idling in rush-hour traffic, and moved to an apartment at the edge of Chinatown. He now walks to work in five minutes.

“I used to think it was normal to spend two to three hours traveling to work,” says Honda, co-creative director at Nella Media Group, a multimedia publishing company. These days, he simply walks or hops on his bike to attend business appointments downtown. He hasn’t given up his car, but uses it sparingly to run short errands. Honda, a Waipahu native, finds himself freed from commuting and committed to an urban lifestyle. “Now, I don’t think I’ll ever move out of town,” he says.

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But Matt Honda is part of a small minority: Only 4.2 percent of Hawaii residents walk to work. For most Hawaii residents, cars remain the dominant mode of transportation. During the first half of 2014, statewide new light-vehicle sales (cars, light trucks and SUVs) posted a 12.3 percent year-on-year gain, compared to 6.2 percent nationwide. The Hawaii Automobile Dealers Association projects healthy annual sales of 53,400 vehicles this year, which would outpace last year’s total by 14,700. While robust, HADA’s forecast remains below the state’s pre-recession peak of 70,000 new vehicles sold in one year.

In 2013, 1.3 million cars, buses, trucks and motorcycles were registered statewide while the number of licensed drivers totaled 904,500, highlighting that some residents own more than one vehicle.

HADA expects the overall vehicle count to grow in the coming years, “but not dramatically,” according to executive director Dave Rolf. “We’re about at an equilibrium level,” he says, noting annual sales are offset by the 50,000 vehicles that are recycled each year. He projects that higher urban density, alternative transportation, and increased walking and bicycling will help stabilize the total count at about 1 million vehicles throughout the state.

Prevedouros cites three economic forces driving Hawaii’s trend toward more vehicle miles driven per capita: a rebound in tourism, which puts more visitors on the roads; the construction boom on Oahu, which stimulates the transport of people and materials; and the large number of Hawaii residents who hold more than one part-time job and drive between workplaces.

Another factor is the high percentage of children who either attend private schools or receive district exemptions, requiring travel beyond their immediate neighborhoods, says Karl Kim, a professor in the department of Urban and Regional Planning at UH-Manoa. He adds: “Just look at the difference in traffic when school is out and when it’s in session.”

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The relative location of jobs and affordable housing also influences driving patterns. Seventy-one percent of Oahu’s jobs are located in the urban core, while 46 percent of the population lives there, according to the Regional Transportation Plan 2035 prepared by Oahu Metropolitan Planning Organization. Many people have little choice but to live far from where they work. Research from the Honolulu Board of Realtors shows that, in the first half of 2014, the average price of a three-bedroom, single-family home in Makiki, near Honolulu, was $1,754,250, while a comparable home in Ewa Plains in West Oahu sold for $501,117. Residential growth outside the urban core leads to commuting and congestion along the traffic corridor between them. While work/play/live neighborhoods are being developed in Kakaako and West Oahu, a key question is how many people will be able to take advantage of that ideal.

The costs of congestion are high. Kim notes that hours spent idling in traffic robs time from family activities and increases the risk of health problems and accidents. INRIX, a traffic information group, estimated that the average Honolulu motorist spent 60.8 extra hours in traffic due to congestion in 2013, the worst rate in the nation. According to Prevedouros, the general tolerance threshold for congestion is 75 minutes for a one-way trip by car. When commute time exceeds that, people are more likely to move, change jobs or relocate to another region or state.

Congestion also has environmental costs. Hawaii motorists logged more than 11 billion miles in 2012, according to Blue Planet Foundation. The Foundation projects that if just 5 percent of those miles were shifted to walking or biking, it would save $100 million spent on imported gasoline and 500 million pounds of CO2.

The Hawaii Automobile Dealers Association is keenly aware of rising congestion, and has advocated for expanded lane capacity, overhead lanes and more carpools. “The solution that is needed right now is the freeing up of the vehicle so we can move more freely,” explains Rolf. He emphasizes that cars give people unmatched freedom of mobility, allowing people to work anywhere on their island.

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More Bus Riders

The increasingly popular main alternative to driving is riding the bus. Kauai’s fixed-route bus ridership quadrupled from 2005 to 2013, when annual boardings reached 781,790. Maui’s annual ridership of 2.4 million has remained level over the last two years, while Hawaii Island’s has grown an average of 5 to 7 percent a year for the past five years. “With rising gas prices and an improving economy, we expect more use and demand for our bus services,” says Tiffany Kai, mass-transit coordinator for the County of Hawaii, who notes that current boardings are 920,280 a year.

After steady growth of 2 percent per year over the past five years, Honolulu’s bus ridership was estimated at 77.3 million boardings in 2013. “Nationally, Honolulu has the fifth-highest ridership rate per capita, behind New York City, Washington, D.C., Boston and San Francisco,” says J. Roger Morton, president and general manager of Oahu Transit Services, which manages TheBus for the City and County of Honolulu. He notes that Honolulu is the only one of those cities without a rail system. “We have the highest all-bus ridership in the nation, so we have a pretty loyal clientele.”

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Liway Asuncion is among those loyal passengers. Every workday, the 32-year-old boards the 4:30 a.m. express bus in Waipahu and travels to Arcadia Retirement Residence in Manoa, where she works as a certified nursing assistant. Her one-way ride, with one transfer, takes about 45 minutes. Asuncion says she enjoys riding the bus and uses the time to catch up on her favorite shows. “I love watching Korean dramas while I’m traveling, so I put on my earphones and watch them on my phone,” she says. “When you’re riding the bus, you can relax, you can do other things, you don’t have to worry about driving.”

Taking the bus is both affordable – a monthly bus pass costs $60 for adults – and light on the environment. In 2012, Honolulu bus passengers traveled an average of 428 miles per person, avoiding 243 million pounds of CO2 that would have been released if each rider had driven a single-passenger car instead, according to Blue Planet Foundation.

Asuncion’s husband owns a sedan, which he drives to work, but the family isn’t thinking about purchasing another vehicle. Between the mortgage on the couple’s two-bedroom apartment and monthly car payments, there’s little discretionary income. Plus they have other priorities. “Every month we try to save something for our daughter’s education,” Asuncion says of their 3-year-old. “Every little bit helps.”

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The National Automobile Dealers Association estimated the average price of a new car in 2013 was $31,762. The cost of owning and operating a sedan in 2013 averaged $9,122 per year nationwide, according to AAA, which factored in the costs of insurance, maintenance, gas, tires and depreciation. For individuals and families who can’t afford a car, the bus is usually their passage to jobs, school, shopping and social activities.

Morton acknowledges the current bus system is “overloaded,” noting that routes from Makaha, Kapolei and Makakilo into Honolulu’s urban core are prone to standing-room-only crowds daily. While the City Council has approved additional funding to relieve overburdened parts of the subsidized bus system, Morton says all eyes are on rail.

Initial construction is underway on the 20-mile, $5.16 billion elevated rail system, which will run from East Kapolei to Ala Moana Center. The first 10-mile span, from Kapolei to Aloha Stadium, is scheduled for completion in 2017, while the second half, to Ala Moana Center, will be finished in 2019. The project is on track to meet that timeline, according to a spokesman for the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, which oversees the project. Morton anticipates that rail’s expanded capacity will cut down dramatically on travel times and bus overcrowding. “When rail comes to town, it will be a game changer for transit,” he says.

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Meanwhile, a lower-cost game changer is gaining popularity. Honolulu currently ranks 12th in the nation among large cities for bike commuting, according to a recent American Community Survey by the U.S. Census Bureau. Nearly 8,000 people, or 2.3 percent of the city’s population, reported commuting to work via bike as their primary transportation mode in 2012 –almost double the percentage in 2000. Nationwide, bicycling has ramped up 60 percent over the last decade, says national transportation expert Michelle Maynard.

Local bike stores are benefiting from the surge in interest. Adam Brooke, head of sales for Kailua’s The Bike Shop, which also operates branches in Honolulu and Aiea, has seen new customers from a range of occupations and ages take up the sport. “More and more, bikes are becoming a part of our way of life,” he says. With mounting demand, Brooke would like to see a more cohesive, expanded network of bike lanes and pathways to boost safety. He notes that “our customers tell us that the lack of safety is the No. 1 reason they don’t ride their bikes more.”

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Honolulu is gearing up for a big push in that direction. The City and County is rolling out plans in the coming year that include a downtown cycle-track, new bike lanes and a major bike-sharing program. “We’re really committed to trying to make Honolulu bike-friendly,” says Chris Sayers, bicycle coordinator for Honolulu’s Department of Transportation Services. The Oahu Bike Plan calls for installing 559 miles of new bikeways across the island at an estimated cost of $68 million over the next 20 to 30 years. Sayers notes that significant cost savings will be realized as the work is synchronized with scheduled road-maintenance projects.

Last September, a bikeway opened along Waialae Avenue in Kaimuki, and now the city has started constructing a cycle track on the mauka side of King Street in downtown Honolulu. The 2-mile corridor from Alapai to Isenberg streets will be set off by raised curbs and marked by signs, creating a protected, bike-only track. While the initial phase will run one way from downtown, displacing one lane of traffic, plans are to accommodate two-way cycling in the future.

Advocates say the track will aid both bicyclists and businesses. “We hope it gets bicyclists off the sidewalks, which is a big safety concern,” notes Sayers. “And research shows that adding cycle tracks and bikeways improves business in the area. Bicyclists are more likely to see store displays, so they’re more inclined to stop and shop.”

The city and the state Department of Health are behind a major bike-sharing project, set to launch in December 2015. Initial plans call for installing 180 stations with 1,800 bikes within a 5-square-mile area extending from Chinatown to Waikiki to UH-Manoa. The program’s startup is expected to cost $11 million to $12 million, but user fees are projected to eventually make it self-sustaining, Sayers says. It’s aimed at residents and visitors making short, one-way trips, and similar systems have proven popular in Washington, D.C., New York City and other cities. Users typically pay a membership fee with additional costs for rides longer than 30 minutes, but Honolulu’s payment structure is yet to be announced. BikeShare Hawaii, the nonprofit that will oversee the project, is seeking $5 million in federal funding and additional support from the private sector.

“We’re very excited about the project because we think it will be a catalyst for bicycling in Honolulu. Biking is healthy and sustainable – it’s a clean mode of transportation,” Sayers says. “And bike sharing opens up a lot of new possibilities for the future.”

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“Sharing” Rides

Smartphones are opening other transportation possibilities. Ridesharing services are growing around the globe, and two major competitors, Uber and Lyft, recently broke onto the Oahu scene. The peer-to-peer services work via smartphone applications: Users tap in a location and destination and the app connects them with a nearby “friend with a car” who drives them. Payment is managed through the app, which stores users’ credit-card information, eliminating the exchange of cash.

Sophina Placencio, 32, was one of the first to join Lyft Honolulu as a part-time driver. The nonprofit consultant uses her personal vehicle to transport passengers and sees it as a sweet deal all around. “I make sure I get people to their destinations safely, and I get to make a little money on the side,” she says. Between her meetings downtown, Placencio will try to squeeze in short runs and sometimes makes 15 rides a day. Since Lyft launched in June, she says she has provided 370 Lyft rides and earns $250 on a good day.

Lyft spokesperson Katie Dailey says the company is pleased by the positive response from Hawaii passengers and drivers, but declined to provide financial information or ridership numbers. Uber did not provide numbers either. While Lyft and Uber are locked in a fierce battle for market share, they also face challenges from the cab industry. Honolulu taxi companies say the two companies are operating in violation of industry regulations and have raised the matter before the Honolulu City Council. Similar complaints have been voiced in cities worldwide.

Amid the controversy, Lyft and Uber are gaining traction. Lyft operates in 68 cities across the U.S. and has a valuation of $700 million. Uber, whose drivers range from part-timers to full-time professionals, is in 100 U.S. cities and 45 countries. Last June, Uber’s valuation reached $18.2 billion as investors rallied around the company’s plans to expand into delivery and logistics.

Zak Noyle, 27, is a fan of Uber. After trying out the service in Los Angeles, the surf photographer now uses it to get to the airport, to attend crowded public events or to go bar-hopping safely. It’s all about convenience. “With Uber, the app lets you see how far away the driver is and exactly where the car will pick you up,” he says. “And when I get to where I’m going, I jump right out and don’t have to hassle with cash. It makes it easy.”

Lyft and Uber tout lofty aims of removing more cars from the road. It’s not clear how using their service eliminates car use, but the companies may have come up with a concept that does. Both competitors recently announced the addition of a carpool feature to their respective apps that allows people to share rides along the same route. The discounted rates and ride-sharing hipster sheen may entice enough people out of their cars and into a carpool, which would ease traffic congestion. While the carpooling features go through initial testing, there is no word yet on when they might be available in Hawaii.

Quality of Life

From ride sharing to bike sharing, from buses to walking shoes, efforts to create viable alternatives to the car are gaining ground. But what does Hawaii’s transportation future look like? Prevedouros predicts that cars will continue to dominate because of the state’s tourism-dependent economy, high private-schools enrollment and large number of people holding more than one job.

“We don’t have mass transit that is flexible and quick enough to take you to drop off your kids or take you to your multiple jobs. You cannot be a resident in Kailua with kids at Punahou and try to do these things by bus,” he explains. “The only mode that can deliver that is private transportation.”

Prevedouros predicts we will see more cars on the road in the future, but says traffic congestion will eventually be reduced by autonomous cars that drive better than people-driven cars, while more energy-efficient cars will ease environmental concerns.

Auto dealers are tracking fast-moving developments around autonomous cars, but, Dave Rolf of the car dealers association says, that’s still far on the horizon. In the shorter term, he sees Hawaii leading the way with clean energy. “We are way out in front with EV (electric-vehicle) adoption, and we have the potential to be ahead of everyone with hydrogen,” he says, noting that hydrogen-fuel-cell cars will be rolling out next year. Rolf remains optimistic that cars becoming more fuel-efficient will signal “a great future as we move forward with mobility.”

A common debate in cities across the country, says national transportation expert Maynard, is whether government funding should focus on fixing infrastructure that supports the use of personal vehicles – roads, bridges and parking – or on promoting public transportation. Over the last 60 years, while the federal government has concentrated on building the federal highway system, she observes, “We haven’t really focused attention in the states and the government on public transportation, on moving masses of people.”

UH’s Karl Kim is a staunch advocate for public transportation. He believes a multipronged approach is urgently needed to reverse Hawaii’s dependence on the personal vehicle, including “better land-use planning; increasing allowable densities in town; creating real alternatives to driving such as biking, improved pedestrian walkways, car sharing and better transit.” He’d also like to see more public-transportation options such as “street cars, jitneys, and more creative use of shuttle buses and urban circulators.”

Hawaii is taking important steps toward expanding its portfolio of transportation options. Whether these efforts will be enough to significantly improve our quality of life remains to be seen. For now, looking at the national landscape, Maynard takes a long view. “We’ve been dependent on the automobile now for 110 years. It could take another 100 years before we tip all the way back or maybe it never happens,” she says. “But, if we tip to an equilibrium where cars, public transit, bikes, pedestrians all coexist,” she expects that’s a future many people would welcome.


Phones Now More Essential Than Driver’s Licenses for Teens

Fewer teens in Hawaii are signing up for driver’s licenses, mirroring a downward national trend on what used to be a near-universal American rite of passage.

Between 2008 and 2013, the number of 15- to 19-year-olds registering to drive in Hawaii declined 18 percent, from 29,171 a year to 23,805. A report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the proportion of high school seniors nationwide holding a driver’s license fell by 12 percent from 1996 to 2010.

Researchers suggest that mobile technology has supplanted the car as the preferred way for teens to connect – they would rather text than drive. But UH-Manoa transportation expert Panos Prevedouros is inclined to blame economic factors. “The bottom line is that these kids do not have jobs and, if they have jobs, those jobs don’t pay much,” he says. “The automobile is very costly – it comes with insurance, gasoline, registration, etc. – so kids think, why get a driver’s license when they cannot afford a car?”

Makena Nishimoto, 15, looks forward to applying for her instruction permit soon but she’s not in a rush to get her license. “It’s not a high priority for me right now,” she says, explaining that her focus is on school, family and sports. The junior relies on her parents to drive her to Roosevelt High School and to other activities. Besides, she adds, the licensing process “takes a long time.”

Being too busy and not having enough time was the top reason teens gave for not getting their licenses, says a national survey from the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. The expense of owning and maintaining a vehicle ranked second, followed by the ability to secure transportation from others. Significantly, 22 percent of respondents said they never plan to get a driver’s license.

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