Sure, Kaimuki may not be the westside, where some Oahu commuters leave as early as 3 a.m. to avoid congestion into town.
But the neighborhood has its own unique traffic problems — and the struggle, says resident Scott Argus, is real.
For decades, Argus and other drivers in this crowded patch of Honolulu have relied on local ritual to navigate its narrow two-way roads. Kaimuki’s street parking leaves just enough space for one direction of traffic to pass at a time.
If cars heading in opposite directions encounter each other — which happens a lot — it’s customary for the driver closest to the parked cars to find a gap and pull over while the other person passes.
But every situation is unique. The ritual gets complicated — especially if there’s a wall of parked cars and no space to pull over. Often, drivers have to improvise or drive over curbs to pass each other.
“That’s where the problems get sometimes pretty serious,” Argus said recently. “You have to hope that the guy doesn’t enter that lane when you don’t have a place to pull over. The streets were never designed for this many people, especially with street parking.”
The issue affects older parts of town, including Wilhelmina Rise, St. Louis Heights, and McCully. But Kaimuki appears to be the main neighborhood affected, where most streets across its grid are a tight squeeze.
Argus, who’s lived in the area for 14 years, wants to see a fix but he’s not holding his breath.
Kaimuki is one of the island’s oldest neighborhoods and a home to many multi-generational families. Its neighborhood board members say the streets issue rarely comes up at their monthly meetings. At the board’s meeting last week, residents who testified were mostly concerned with Honolulu’s so-called “monster homes,” the massive residential structures whose numbers have been growing around town.
For many in Kaimuki, dodging oncoming cars is just a part of life.
“It’s been like that forever — since I was a kid,” said James Kong, who grew up in nearby Palolo and co-moderates the Facebook group “you know you’re from KAIMUKI when….” “People are always set in their ways in that neighborhood.”
Kong said it might be possible for the city to widen the streets by pushing many of Kaimuki’s sidewalks back to the residential property lines. But he added that the city doesn’t have the money to make such an expensive project a priority without raising property taxes.
Argus suggested a more practical solution might be to make the streets one-way.
Typically, however, city officials only look into whether that’s possible when local residents request it. Neither Argus nor Kong had heard of such a push in Kaimuki.
In Kailua, the city’s Department of Transportation Services recently approved a plan to convert Kaelepulu Drive to one-way traffic, from Aalapapa Drive to Mokulua Drive, according to Andrew Pereira, a spokesman for Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell.
Councilman Ikaika Anderson’s office is currently gauging consensus among the residents on Kaelepulu Drive on whether they’d like to make the switch, Pereira added.
For one-way conversions to work, usually a nearby street must also be switched to one-way in the opposite direction as a complement, he said.
There are other requirements: Residents on one side of the street must be willing to supply their own trash cans for “manual” collection, where a garbage employee empties the refuse into the passing truck — not the machine lifts that typically handle that task these days.
DTS officials must also make sure the one-way traffic would not put local residents too far out of their way when trying to get home, Pereira said.
One obvious fix would be to simply eliminate street parking – but Kaimuki’s older homes often only have single-car garages. Residents there rely greatly on the street parking. Taking it away could lead to bigger headaches overall.
The Honolulu Fire Department can fit its trucks and engines down Kaimuki’s tight streets, according to spokesman Scot Seguirant. In general, the department is used to navigating Oahu’s narrow roads, and its veteran firefighters often know the best routes to avoid hanging utility poles and other neighborhood “idiosyncrasies,” he said.
“I think that we can get to everywhere that we need to go,” Seguirant said. “We’re fighting fires in the mountains where there’s no roads.”
The Hawaii Driver’s Manual does briefly address the state’s narrow roads, instructing drivers to give cars passing in the opposite direction “at least one-half of the main traveled portion of the road.”
It doesn’t say what to do when that’s not possible, however.
In Kaimuki, it’s customary for drivers to give a friendly wave or shaka to someone who pulls over to let them pass.
“Yes, we do have narrow roads, but mostly people have been very neighborly,” Kaimuki Neighborhood Board member Sharon Schneider said. “Part of the custom is to acknowledge you…. It is kind of nice, and part of Hawaii.”
Sometimes, however, drivers don’t know the local custom. They “simply don’t get it and expect everyone to get out of their way,” Argus said.
While most drivers handle the situation politely, he said he’s occasionally seen drivers get out of their cars and get in confrontations.
Argus said many of his neighbors are resigned to accept the one-lane streets posing as two-way roads as just another price to live in Hawaii.
“I’m not at all surprised. Things like that don’t change (even) over a period of decades,” said Argus, who’s 68. Many residents in the neighborhood are seniors, and “people our age generally don’t want change,” he said.
Some consider the packed streets part of the charm of living in Kaimuki, he added.
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