If you’ve traveled on the Kalanianaole Highway during morning rush hour, you’ve likely experienced the shock of seeing vehicles darting into oncoming traffic. Perhaps you’ve seen them coming toward you as you drive your car.

At first it might seem unsafe — even suicidal — for motorists to speed in opposite directions with only a thin line of grimy orange cones as a barrier between them. But somehow it seems to work.

This is contraflow, when lanes are reversed from the normal traffic flow direction, usually with a moveable barrier or cones, in order to alleviate heavy traffic at peak hours.

Each weekday, city workers position individual cones, signs and pylons to try smooth the flow of drivers toward their destinations.

Similar tasks occur on H-1, except the pylons are replaced by giant concrete barriers that are pushed around the highway by a re-enforced bus-sized vehicle to create “zipper lanes” for commuters trying to get to town.

It’s all part of an integrated system that aims to ease the second worst traffic congestion in the country. But it also costs taxpayers more than $3 million a year, and that is likely to be the case for the foreseeable future.

Advocates say that more contraflow lanes are needed, but they need to be done right.

Panos Prevedouros, a civil and environmental engineering professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, is in favor of contraflow, but he argues that the practice of manually coning lanes is wasteful and out of date. The way that contraflow is done in Honolulu, he says, “is the unionized way of expending a lot of money.”

“(We’re) paying people to block lanes … (and) spending money for reasons that we don’t really have to.”

The Cone Job

Honolulu is one of the only places in the country that still uses cones for contraflow — and it has been one of the select few since at least 2008, according to Federal Highway Administration data from that year, which is the latest available.

Traffic personnel rise early in the morning to begin manually setting up and taking down over 900 cones and pylons around the city, in addition to posting signage and concrete barriers every weekday. They do it while being exposed to the oncoming morning and late-afternoon rush-hour traffic.

A coning crew makes finishing touches on a contra flow lane on Waialae Ave in Kaimuki on January 7, 2014. (PF Bentley/Civil Beat)

Prevedouros, a former mayoral candidate who has long advocated for better traffic solutions in Honolulu, said the use of cones and pylons is antiquated. Not only does the current system drain public funds, but he believes the cones and blockades can be dangerous, especially if vehicles strike the cones and knock them into opposing cars and trucks.

Still, Prevedouros is a believer in contraflow, and thinks it should be expanded.

“For many years, Honolulu has been pretty congested by too few lanes for the population we have, particularly in central Oahu between Aloha Stadium and Kahala,” said Prevedouros, who noted that the city doesn’t have alternatives or enough lanes. “We have to do our best with the lanes we have.”

Going With the Flow

Contraflow coverage in Honolulu, which spans nearly nine miles in the morning and more than three miles in the afternoon, was first used on the islands in 1952 along Kapiolani Boulevard to tackle the bad traffic.

Six decades on, it’s still going strong.

The contraflow on Kalanianaole Highway from West Halemaumau Street to Ainakoa Avenue, which opened in 1973, is separated by cones, as are the contraflow lanes on Kapiolani, Ward and Waialae avenues.

On these county roads, a crew of nine people gets going at 4:30 a.m., and the lanes are expected to be fully coned by 5:30 a.m. Pick up begins at 8:30 a.m. and lasts until about 9:45 a.m.

In the afternoon, contraflow is on Kapiolani and Waialae. Crews begin at 2:45 p.m. so that the lanes can be open from 3:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., and they’re done removing the cones by 7:30 p.m.

This weekday routine costs taxpayers nearly $850,000 a year, according to information provided by the Department of Transportation Services and the Department of Facility Maintenance.

Exactly how much of that money goes toward the workers, cones, vehicles or other related costs isn’t clear. City spokesperson Jesse Broder Van Dyke declined to breakdown the costs.

What’s With the Zamboni?

The state operates the H-1 zipper lane, which runs from Managers Drive in Waikele to the east end of the H-1 airport viaduct. A contraflow lane is also set up on the Nimitz Highway between Alakawa and Pacific streets.

 The ZipMobile removes the barricades blocking off a zipper lane on H1 freeway in Aiea at 9:16 a.m. on January 7, 2014.  (PF Bentley/Civil Beat)

Both the H-1 and Nimitz lanes are open from 5:30 to 8:30 a.m. on weekdays. Only cars with two or more occupants may use these lanes, or electric vehicles with any number of passengers.

The Nimitz contraflow is set up each day by two workers on a single truck, with one driving and the other putting down or picking up the traffic cones. It takes the crew about a half hour to do this. The cost was $137,600 last year.

The contraflow on the H-1, however, differs from all the other streets and roadways. It utilizes a special vehicle called the Zip Mobile, which shifts the concrete barriers around the highway.

The big yellow caterpillar-like vehicle quickly moves the heavy barriers, which are connected with steel links, making a flexible yet sturdy barricade. (See it in action here)

Setting up the zipper lane requires two operators on board the Zip Mobile and two other support staff, with a set-up time that clocks in at three hours. For 2013, preparing Honolulu’s zipper lanes cost $2,070,407.

A Lasting Solution

Prevedouros says more needs to be done to expand contraflow in Honolulu, specifically on Dillingham Boulevard and King Street. But he warns that if the city sticks with coning, expenses will continue to mount.

“You have all these labor expenses, insurance costs, vehicle maintenance, and replacement vehicles — all kinds of things,” Prevedouros said. “It is a constant operational expense we don’t need. We need contraflow, but we shouldn’t be doing it with cones.”

A better way might be through the use of overhead lane control lights, such as the ones on the H-3. Prevedouros believes the one-time installation mark a vast improvement over the current system and lower the cost for the city, possibly allowing for contraflow to be introduced in other high-traffic areas.

A one-time installation fee has been implemented in cities across the nation to fix their traffic issues. It cost the city of Arlington, Texas around $3 million, although the pricing varies based on the type and coverage.

Westbound traffic backs up on the H1 freeway in Aiea on January 7, 2014. (PF Bentley/Civil Beat)

Honolulu’s $5.26 billion rail project also is not likely to curb the need for contraflow, city officials say.

The city is currently conducting a study on contraflow to determine if any alterations should be made.

The study will look at expanding contraflow to other streets, such as Dillingham or King. City officials said the data will be analyzed as soon as mid-2014.

Contraflow is set to stay with us.

Brian Gibson is the executive director at the Oahu Metropolitan Planning Organization, which coordinates transportation plans on Oahu.

He said contraflow is still a great option to ease congestion, even if the way we do it here is uncommon.

“Contraflow is — no matter how you do it, with cones or some other way — a viable option to improve the flow of traffic,” he said.

So you better get used to those bright orange cones on Hawaii’s roads.

About the Author