Thursday, November 19, 2009

Is There a Plan to Solve Traffic Congestion of Oahu?

Unlike most other urban areas, where congestion decreased slightly from two years ago, the latest Urban Mobility Report from the Texas Transportation Institute shows that congestion has gotten worse in Honolulu:

  • The number of hours per person spent stuck in traffic increased from 24 hours to 26.
  • The travel-time index increased from 1.22 to 1.24, so it takes 24% longer to make a trip at rush hour than at other times, on the average.
  • The annual cost of wasted time and fuel ballooned from $166 million to $199 million.
  • Honolulu is the 28th most congested urban area in the United States.

Of course it is not new to residents that Honolulu is a congested city. Honolulu is one of the nation’s most lane deficient cities. It has a traffic congestion problem; not a transit ridership problem. A traffic problem cannot be solved with transit solutions.

Some say that Honolulu has such severe congestion because its car ownership is very high. Some politicians even claim that Honolulu is number one in car ownership. This is totally wrong. Honolulu’s car ownership ranks 64th in the nation, much lower than its rank in population!

So are we going to see an improvement in congestion? The rail proposal clearly says that:
(1) TheBus carries 6% of the trips on Oahu now, and
(2) TheBus and TheRail together will carry 7% of the trips 20 years from now.
What’s the end result? Much worse traffic congestion.

I had a brief “exit interview” with 2nd ISFO speaker and presidential advisor on transportation Robert Poole. He noted that:

“Listening to the city and state transportation planners at the conference, I was struck by how passive they were in the face of Honolulu’s serious, ever-worsening traffic congestion.”

“Highly cost-effective techniques that have long been routine in mainland cities—such as ramp meters on freeway on-ramps and synchronized traffic signal timing—still sound like new and controversial ideas in Honolulu.

“Brand new billion-dollar-scale high occupancy vehicle and toll (HOT) lane projects are under way in a dozen cities. Yet HOT lanes are barely a subject for study in Honolulu.

“Has reducing congestion—i.e., targeting a congestion level lower than today’s – even been suggested as a transportation goal in Honolulu?”

I also had the opportunity to talk at length with the 2nd ISFO keynote speaker, renowned transportation historian and congressional transportation policy analyst Alan Pisarski, author of the series Commuting in America. Here are his summary comments:

“The fragility of Oahu’s transportation system is staggering. It is a system sharply constrained by geography – both water and mountains. Just one strategically placed fender-bender can disrupt a large area for hours.

“Every tool in the traffic operations toolbox should be examined for application to the island’s daily needs. Any opportunity to upgrade and modernize the system around the freeways and their corridors must be seriously considered.

“A special events planning team integrated with the operations function is a critical step.”

Oahu is lacking in both event planning and hands-on 24x7 traffic management. The result is regional chaos with parade closures, accidents and special events at UH-Manoa campus and Aloha Stadium.

Pisarski added that “it should go without saying that traffic on the island must accommodate the two major industries of national defense and tourism. Any assessment of needs and goals must recognize that there are at least three major layers of transportation needs on Oahu: Daily life of its residents, Tourism, and National Defense.

Pisarski said that a simple question provides the fundamental guide for directing transportation resources: “What share of our resources are we spending on what share of our problem?” Oahu now plans to spend over 40% of its transportation resources on a mass transit system that will serve 7% of its trips, at best.

One of the basic duties that local transportation government has not done is take a fundamental look of transportation needs and allocations. This deficiency is pointing the finger at the Oahu Metropolitan Planning Organization, but OMPO, thanks to its Policy Advisory Committee, operates as a political arm of the executive and legislative bodies, and not as an impartial regional transportation agency.

Persistent congestion, insane road closures from accidents or parades, communities like Waianae depending on a single road, roads full of potholes, the smelly and clunky Wiki-Wiki, the dirty and late buses are all outcomes of wrong priorities. The people in charge are not asking the right questions, and they are not working on real solutions.

Pisarksi conluded that: “Given all of its constraints and challenges Hawaii should be a national leader in understanding and addressing mobility needs for Defense, Tourism and Residents.

“It should be pretty obvious that a flexible, highway based system is at the core of the solution to provide needed mobility for defense, deliveries and tourism, with express toll lanes added in the plan for express buses and carpools to serve school trips and peak period commuters.”

Does Oahu do this? No! The priority of its disconnected government is “smart growth”, rail transit and Transit Oriented Development or TOD. Not surprisingly, the recent Urban Land Institute survey on Oahu shows that this is not what the residents want. Here’s an excerpt from their website:

In January, 2009, ULI Hawaii commissioned a survey of housing attitudes among the public. The phone survey was of 600 Oahu residents.

… there is relatively much less support for the “smart growth” idea of higher-density use of existing urban areas – perhaps in part because people here generally still would rather live in suburban/rural settings themselves. [Source:]