Stop the train, I want to get off!

There’s a missing factor in the formula pushing a 5++billion dollar rail system into our suburbs, and this traffic solution is doomed to fail without it.

The simple truth is that a rail transit system requires a dense residential pattern to make it work, lots of people living in close proximity, which we do not have on Oahu. This crucial relationship between transportation and land use has never been properly addressed. If we had the density of a New York or Chicago, then all other arguments against rail would be unimportant and we should build the system, but we are far from that crowded.

The often-cited description of Honolulu conjured up by rail proponents as a dense, linear city ideal for rail is a myth. Our biggest transit problem is that Oahu’s settlement pattern of single-family homes in suburban subdivisions is too dispersed for rail to be effective.

If we build the rail line and don’t change the way we build new housing this system will be a colossal disaster. How many people right now live within walking distance of any likely stations? Not nearly enough to support rail rapid transit.

When you travel around the world as I have and look at successful rail transit systems you see they are in cities with medium and high density housing where people can walk to the station and then walk to their work place at the other end.

A global trend in city planning is creation of the urban village, both in the city center and in the fringes with construction of new towns. Such increased housing density could enhance quality of life by developing a village atmosphere and supporting our need for close-knit communities where people interact, unlike today’s isolated neighborhoods. Shops, restaurants, entertainment, jobs, schools, mass transit, and other enjoyable urban amenities would be easily accessed in a more dense community if it is properly planned.

There is a causal relationship between our problems of unaffordable housing and congested traffic, because we have spent years building the wrong kind of homes in the wrong places, covering our landscape with big, expensive houses, generating suburban sprawl that has produced tremendous traffic problems. These unattended problems will only grow worse if we are distracted with an ineffective, fixed rail pipedream. Jumping into a rail commitment at this point is just not going to work.

Consider how someone living in a single-family suburban home would have to get to work on rail: walk to a bus stop, wait for the bus, ride to the rail, walk to the platform, wait, board, ride, walk from the rail to another bus stop, wait, board, ride, walk to work; then do the same thing in reverse going home. Who is going to put up with this? Most who are supporting rail probably would not ride it — but hope in vain that others will, to make more room on the roads for the rest of us.

There are better transportation alternatives which could provide faster relief and perhaps eventually evolve into a rail system. One obvious strategy is to vastly expand our bus system. We need more buses, exclusive lanes, frequent service, additional routes, express lines, better connections and lower fares. Our present bus system is often claimed to be one of the nation’s best, which is another myth that stands in the way of true solutions. It can be drastically improved.

Extensive road construction will be needed, including some elevated busways, bus stations,
underpasses at busy intersections, more use of contraflow and other management improvements. In the future, if bus utilization grows heavy enough, this system of elevated structures and exclusive bus lanes could be converted to rail, which would ultimately have more capacity; but it would be a mistake to attempt a transition directly to rail at this point when we are not yet ready.

Why not just build the rail now along with the higher density housing to go with it? That would be nice if we could trust the brilliance of our politicians and private land developers to do the right thing, but with their sorry record of land use planning we must not be gullible. This new kind of housing approach needs to be demonstrated with real results and in the meantime it can be supported with an expanded bus system which can evolve into rail transit.

Unfortunately, our misguided state legislature passed a flawed bill that prohibits expenditures of new transit revenues on road improvements. How can the city now tell us with a straight face that all transportation alternatives are currently being given fair consideration? This state legislation could be changed, but given past performance, the outlook is bleak.

Former Mayor Harris was probably on the right track with his BRT plans using modern buses driving on exclusive lanes and circulating in existing streets. A well-planned bus service could pick you up near home, bring you to a bus station where one transfer would put you on a bus that is going close to the final destination, riding on exclusive lanes that will be free from traffic.

Commuters could also drive to transit stations at regional shopping malls, park for the day and catch an express bus direct to their destination. The whole island can benefit from this approach rather than one narrow leeward corridor. Another promising technology is creation of high-occupancy toll lanes, but the city studies are also ignoring this option.

At the same time we can be preparing ourselves for a future rail system, far in the future, by building new housing in well-planned, medium and high-density apartments — which can be affordable and very beautiful when done right.

Clustered villages can be created with a mix of townhouses and highrise apartments that could support neighborhood shopping, entertainment and other urban amenities. These clusters could be developed in the urban core as well as carefully-selected regions of the island. It can happen, but it will require a serious community dialogue and basic transformation in the way we build housing, requiring a prohibition on most new single-family houses and active government involvement in consolidating small private parcels for larger planned communities through aggressive use of eminent domain.

Let’s not be railroaded into paying for a premature, expensive rail system that will take forever to build at great inconvenience and won’t work. At this time and for the foreseeable future rail is a luxury that we are not ready for and cannot afford. Imagine ten years of disruptive construction for a massive elevated train that hardly anyone in our lifetimes is going to use, leaving the rest of us stuck in gridlock and our children permanently unable to find affordable housing. We can do better.

About the author: Dennis Callan has been involved for many years with transportation issues including past terms as co-founder and co-chairman of Stop Rail Now, chairman of the Manoa Neighborhood Board, chairman of the Oahu Metropolitan Planning Organization Citizen Advisory Committee on Transportation and former president of Life of the Land. He also studied urban planning as a UH graduate student and worked as a community planner.