Driving on Kapiolani Boulevard during rush hours can feel like a trap.
A contraflow lane provides extra space for commuters heading to and from downtown, but restricts drivers from making left turns at busy intersections near Ala Moana Center and Waikiki.
While recent traffic studies show morning and afternoon contraflow lanes ease congestion, Honolulu City ouncilman Trevor Ozawa said the afternoon restrictions inconvenience more drivers more than they help.
“It’s incredibly difficult to turn in that area,” said Ozawa, who represents Waikiki and East Honolulu. “It needs to be more accessible, those areas are very vibrant.”
Ozawa has introduced Bill 89 to allow Ewa-bound afternoon drivers to turn left at McCully Street to access Waikiki, and at Atkinson Drive to access Ala Moana. It’s scheduled for a first reading at a City Council meeting Wednesday.
Every afternoon, Department of Transportation Services employees lay cones on the six-lane boulevard to create the contraflow lane. This provides four lanes to commuters heading east toward Koko Head and two lanes for Ewa-bound drivers.
The afternoon contraflow lane stretches from Ward Avenue to McCully, restricting nine left turns for Ewa-bound drivers along the 1.5-mile route.
Ozawa said the afternoon contraflow lane is unnecessary. Last year he introduced a resolution asking the department to consider eliminating its afternoon contraflow lane entirely.
Drivers who want to turn left on at McCully Street end up looping through small roads in Moiliili to access the often-congested intersection of McCully Street and Kapiolani Boulevard.
“It’s like the choke point into Waikiki,” said Bryan Choe, who grew up in Moiliili and is now a member of the McCully/Moiliili Neighborhood Board.
Choe said board members haven’t discussed the issue, but in his opinion the additional driving required because of the contraflow lane doesn’t cause problems for Moiliili residents.
Choe opposes Ozawa’s proposal. He said McCully Street is poorly designed to accommodate traffic going makai into Waikiki and mauka toward H-1, and allowing left turn at all hours wouldn’t alleviate the problem.
After the council passed Ozawa’s 2016 resolution, DTS published a study in January on the effects of the afternoon contraflow lane.
The study found that drivers who loop through Moiliili streets to enter Waikiki add two to six minutes to their travel time, “which is not significant.”
Still, Ozawa said action is needed because his constituents regularly complain about the inconvenience caused by the contraflow lane.
“They have shown no progress at finding a solution for my district,” Ozawa said of the Department of Transportation Services.
DTS officials were not available for comment this week. The department’s studies show “minimum demand for left turns from Ewa-bound traffic to the Ala Moana or Waikiki Areas,” Andrew Pereira, a city spokesman said in an email.
Ryan Tam of the Ala Moana/Kakaako Neighborhood Board offered his own vision for Kapiolani Boulevard. He said his board hasn’t discussed the issue, so he was commenting as an individual.
The contraflow lane should be eliminated and Kapiolani should be reduced from six to four lanes, Tam said, along with a middle lane for left and right turns. The additional space could be used to create bike lanes going both directions.
Tam said the Kapiolani contraflow lane, which has been in place since 1952, and other contraflow lanes on Oahu might be outdated.
“A lot of these ideas go back to the 1970s,” Tam said. “I doubt that they were intended to be (long-term).”
Panos Prevedouros, chair of the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at the University of Hawaii, thinks the contraflow lane is useful to Koko Head-bound drivers in the afternoon, and would change his mind only if data showed the lane causes inefficiencies.
In 2016 DTS published a report on the effect of contraflow lanes on major Honolulu roadways. The study recommended the city keep the Kapiolani contraflow lane. It also found that while the restrictions on left turns cause drivers to alter their route, it provides a safer driving environment.
“My feeling is that there was a purpose why we did it and the purpose has not changed,” Prevedouros said of the contraflow lane. “(If there is) credible data saying going back to three lanes is OK, I’m somewhat in disbelief, but you can trust the data.”