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Eighteen-year-old Kalle Sonsona relies on TheBus to get from school to his restaurant job in Waikiki, but he wishes the service was more reliable.
“It really does take forever,” Sonsona, a Palolo resident, said Tuesday while waiting at a bus stop outside Kapiolani Community College with about a dozen other students. It’s hard to say how long he typically has to wait — “it depends on the day.”
“They’ve got to fix that,” he said.
More and more, Sonsona said, his friends and acquaintances are opting to use ride-hailing services — Uber and Lyft — when they can instead of TheBus. He finds himself hailing an Uber about once a week when his shifts at Musubi Cafe Iyasume run too late to catch the bus — at a price of about $20.
“You’re paying for convenience,” Sonsona said.
In recent months, Honolulu has seen headlines about dwindling ridership on TheBus, raising questions of whether riders will eventually show up in the numbers needed to help pay for Oahu’s costly elevated rail-transit system.
Ask local transportation officials and some experts and they’ll say the following is true: TheBus has indeed seen its annual ridership plunge by more than 10 million passengers in the past five years, from about 76 million in fiscal year 2012 to 65 million in 2017. This reflects a national trend in declining bus usage.
Further, the island’s worsening congestion has stymied TheBus to where it’s no longer as reliable after winning awards as “America’s Best Transit System” in 1995 and 2001.
But they’ll also say TheBus fleet is the nation’s most heavily used system per-capita among major cities.
Historically ridership of TheBus has undergone a series of boom and bust cycles dating back at least as far as 1993, according to city data compiled by the state.
Based on that trend, officials and analysts say they’re confident the passenger counts will eventually rebound again.
“We have a bus system that’s basically full,” said Shem Lawlor, Clean Transportation director with the Honolulu-based nonprofit Blue Planet Foundation. “When the economy is down or gas prices are really high … more people are willing to endure more crowding.”
“We’ll keep doing this forever,” said Lawlor of the ridership ups and downs. He’s studied Honolulu bus data at least as far back as 1972.
Oahu Transit Services runs TheBus for the city and its president and general manager, Roger Morton, cited several factors for the latest downturn.
Tourists and visitors’ share of Oahu’s public bus rides has dropped from 12 percent to about 7 percent in the past decade. More of them are renting cars to get around the island, and the number of private trolley services available to take them around town has increased, he said.
TheBus ridership among Oahu’s college students has plunged by about 25 percent in the past four years, mirroring similar drops in enrollment numbers, Morton said.
He further blamed the island’s construction boom — and “rail is a big part of it.”
Work to install the rail project’s large concrete pillars and guideway through the center of Kamehameha Highway — a major transit corridor through central Oahu — helped push TheBus’ overall on-time performance down to 63 percent. It rebounded to 71 percent after the bulk of the work there ended, Morton said.
Unlike rail critics, however, Morton said rail ultimately will be a “game-changer’ that helps TheBus’ recovery.
Morton aslo blamed a decrease in fuel prices, which could eventually rise again.
Uber and Lyft have also reduced local bus ridership, although it’s hard to say by how much because the ride-hailing companies won’t provide the needed data, according to OTS analysts.
Lawlor, who’s also a part-time Lyft driver, is skeptical those companies are much of a factor. Most of the rides he picks up are people who wouldn’t have taken the bus anyway, he said. For example, on Sunday mornings most of his rides fall into three categories: airport trips, riders who are late for work, and what’s often jokingly described as “the walk of shame” — riders who spent the night in an unfamiliar setting, typically after meeting someone at a bar or club.
Other cities such as Washington, D.C., are also trying to study how much the popularity of ride-hailing is affecting their public transit services.
Waipahu resident John Jibke has found the TheBus to be a dependable mode to get to his job at Uncle Bo’s Pupu Bar and Grill in Kapahulu.
“It’s really reliable,” Jibke said Tuesday while standing at one of the busier stops in town, at the corner of Punchbowl and King streets. However, he said he often has to board an extra bus and then transfer if the more direct line to his work arrives overcrowded.
After chatting for several minutes, Jibke braved a line queuing up for the Route 13 bus. When it arrived, it was packed, but Jibke managed to squeeze inside. Moments later, seven more buses reached the stop — including another Route 13 bus with just 15 passengers. Had Jibke waited, he would have been able to comfortably sit and stretch out.
This common occurrence — where one bus on the line catches up to another one that’s already full — is called “bus-bunching” and Lawlor said it’s worse in Honolulu than in any other U.S. city he’s studied.
A big reason, Lawlor said, is Oahu’s geography and the narrow corridor that only allows for a few major east-west arteries for those bus lines to share.
Bunching makes TheBus less reliable and discourages more passengers from using it, he said.
Ease the bunching with fixes such as a smart-card pass to board or, eventually, an elevated high-capacity rail line running through town, and that should help TheBus’ ridership recover, Lawlor said.
Federal transit data measuring average bus loads show that Honolulu’s bus system is still the most heavily used in the country, Morton said. OTS generally considers a route above capacity if all the seats eventually fill — plus the bus takes on an extra 40 percent in standing passengers or more.
“When I tell them that ridership is down, my drivers tell me, ‘You’re crazy,'” Morton said. “They don’t see it at all. I think there’s still a huge unmet demand on the island.”
To be a better system, TheBus needs to run both frequently and fast, Lawlor said. He gave it a D grade on that score.
Unlike prominent rail critics such as Cliff Slater and Randy Roth, who warn that dwindling bus ridership heralds eventual poor ridership on rail, Lawlor contends that rail’s average 30-mph speeds into town will attract plenty of users and help revitalize TheBus.
In the meantime, bus riders such as Windward Coast resident KC Connor will have to contend with what they’ve found to be subpar service.
“The scheduling, the routes, the connections are a problem,” Connor said Tuesday. Nonetheless, it remains a lifeline to “our lower-income, our disabled” and “our most vulnerable,” she said.