Editor’s Note: This story is part of an ongoing series, “Living Hawaii,” that examines the economic and social impacts of our high cost of living and what it will take to bring down “the price of paradise.” Submit your suggestions for what stories and topics we should cover, or join the conversation at our Cost of Living Facebook page. 
Zuri Aki wakes up in a home that’s separated from his job by 16 miles of pavement.

His commute might not sound extreme. But with obstacles like construction, collisions and routine rush hour traffic, the distance feels far longer. 

Aki’s average one-way commute to Honolulu takes 45 minutes without a hitch. The drive nearly doubles when there’s a crash or road block. The island’s unavoidable and unpredictable commuter traffic is a drain on his health, his wallet and his ability to be present as a parent.

Zuri Aki leaves his multigenerational home on his way on a long commute from Mililani to town
Zuri Aki spends his long car commute between Mililani and Honolulu listening to CD language courses. He is learning to speak Japanese and German. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“The biggest problem I have is I’m totally missing out on my children’s lives because of all this time that I’m stuck in the car instead of being at home,” said Aki, who is 36 and lives with his wife and two young children, as well as his aunt and uncle.

“It breaks my heart. They are sleeping when I leave in the morning and they are getting ready for bed when I get home. It eats me alive.”

Aki, who ran unsuccessfully for the Hawaii House of Representatives earlier this year,  is the third generation in his family to call Mililani home. He has considered relocating to Honolulu, where he works as a public policy advocate for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. But he doesn’t want to break up his multigenerational household or separate his kids, ages 5 and 1, from the family’s neighborhood network of longtime friends and relatives.

He doesn’t want to give up the front lawn. Or the quiet nights.

He laments that government planners haven’t done more to secure better economic opportunities in the suburban communities where so many longtime local families live.

“I guess they didn’t plan things right in Hawaii,” he said.

On Oahu, the average distance between people’s homes and available jobs is shortening, bucking a national trend in which residents of metropolitan areas are traveling longer distances for work.

As Honolulu’s population has grown, the average number of jobs within a typical commute distance for residents has increased by nearly 9 percent from 2010 to 2012, according to the Brookings Institution.  

That’s good news, right?

Yet despite the flourishing number of jobs closer to home, the island’s average commute time is climbing. Workers on Oahu now have an average one-way commute time of more than 29 minutes, according to U.S. Census data. 

In turn, extremely long commutes are becoming more common. The number of Hawaii residents commuting 90 minutes or more soared 63 percent from 2010 to 2015, to almost 17,000 people, according to an analysis of Census data by Pew Research Center.

The average commute may be getting shorter in distance, but it’s growing longer in terms of time.

Brookings calculates the typical commute distance in urban Honolulu at 6.6 miles. But this doesn’t account for how long a handful of miles can take to traverse under the crush of traffic.

Commuters on the island’s more affordable west side regularly leave their homes at 3 or 4 a.m., sometimes stealing a nap while parked on the street or in a garage before the work day begins.

In spite of increasing work opportunities in Oahu’s smaller towns and cities, most well-paying jobs continue to be concentrated in high-priced Honolulu.

In the Mililani area where Aki lives, the number of jobs within a typical commute distance increased by nearly a third from 2010 to 2012. Job opportunities more than doubled during those years in census tracts near Nanakuli, Kapolei and Barbers Point.

But Aki is not feeling relief. Honolulu offers higher-paying work than options in his own community. Making matters worse is the remarkably large increase in commuters who drive to work alone, accelerating the competition of cars vying to make it to work on time.

On Oahu, workers depart for their jobs earlier than the national average, although it’s unclear whether this is specifically due to bad traffic.

Aki calculates he’ll spend 308 days commuting over the next two decades. He’ll spend about $57,000 on gas during those years, according to his assessment.

“It takes your time and it gives you back stress,” Aki said.

Buying A Shorter Commute

A long commute can be expensive. But so is moving into the big city on a housing-starved island.

Louis Scheer spends between 90 minutes and two-and-a-half hours commuting roundtrip on the express bus that runs between his home in Kapolei and his job on Bishop Street in Honolulu.

The number of Hawaii residents commuting 90 minutes or more soared 63 percent from 2010 to 2015. — Pew Research Center

Last year he swapped this brutal commute for a pricey apartment rental in Moiliili, cutting his commute time in half.

“It was amazing,” said the 24-year-old magazine art director.

But he didn’t renew the lease, retreating back to his family’s home in Kapolei after a year. Living near work wasn’t quite worth the price of rent in Honolulu — at least not on his current salary, he said.

“This year of my life has been me trying to get used to this long commute again,” Scheer said. “It’s been pretty hard. Having the time and energy to cook — I miss that.”

Approaching Aiea Eastbound early morning commute traffic1.
On Oahu, the average distance between people’s homes and available jobs is shortening — but the average commute time is growing longer. An increasing number of people drive alone to work, which is worsening traffic conditions. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018

Robin Loudermilk’s one-way commute from her home in Makakilo to her job in Kaimuki can take anywhere from 35 to 90 minutes.

Her employer offers a flexible schedule, which helps make the unpredictable journey slightly more manageable. But it’s still a long haul. Sometimes she stops off at a Zumba class on the drive home to wait out the traffic.

“It’s probably a larger part of my life than I’d like to admit,” said Loudermilk, who is an administrator for Hawaii public schools. “I do think about moving into town sometimes, purchasing a one-bedroom and staying there when the traffic is really bad. But that would be a $300,000, knee-jerk reaction.”

Driving By Moonlight

In the Ewa district along Oahu’s Leeward Coast, more than 12 percent of employed people depart for work between midnight and 5 a.m.

Bryan Jeremiah is one of them.

A construction superintendent with an office in Honolulu’s Kakaako neighborhood, Jeremiah buckles into the driver’s seat of his truck by 4:30 a.m. to avoid the worst of the gridlock traffic.

This typically delivers him to his job site by about 5:30 a.m., although he notes that even a minor traffic accident can set back his arrival time by an hour.

But on a good day, he arrives more than an hour before he needs to be at his desk. He uses this time to catch up on lost sleep.

Jeremiah said the predawn commuter cohort seems to be growing. It’s not uncommon to see workers napping in cars parked outside the office before the work day starts.

Zuri Aki calculates he’ll spend 308 days commuting over the next two decades and about $57,000 on gas during those years.

“As we continue to develop Honolulu, it just keeps bursting at the seams with new developments and we add more and more traffic to the mix,” Jeremiah said. “All we want to do is live in peace. We want to enjoy our families, we want to go to the beach, go fishing, enjoy each other. But we want to do it where we aren’t spending all of our waking moments working and commuting.

“When I was a child, it wasn’t like it is today. I’ve seen the slow and steady decline in quality of life for the local people.”

As Jeremiah sees it, lengthy commuting is taking a heavy toll not just on individual workers and their families, but on society at large.

“Aloha is slowly disappearing,” he said. “Can you imagine if all you do is work, work, work, work, work and have these long commutes, of course you’re going to be on edge. And I just see the true spirit of aloha deteriorating. It’s hard to find local people around anymore — they’re all in Vegas.”

No matter where you’re commuting from on the island, you’ll probably have to jump on H1 if your destination is in Downtown Honolulu, causing congestion and delays. Carlie Procell/Civil Beat

Young, Employed and Sleep-Deprived

Photographer Marie Eriel Hobro’s typical work commute is so energy-draining that she sometimes naps in the driver’s seat before making the evening leg of the journey home.

The trip from her job in Honolulu to her family’s home in Wahiawa takes 45 minutes when traffic is freely flowing. But car crashes and road work delays are common and can more than double her time behind the wheel.

One of her go-to spots to nap before braving the traffic-choked highway is the parking lot at Foodland Market City on the outskirts of Kaimuki.

“It’s like a designated car-napping place,” said Hobro, who is 23. “You go there and there are all these people in their cars napping, and some of them you can tell live in their cars. My mom gets pissed, like ‘You’re gonna get kidnapped!’”

But Hobro figures an hour of shut-eye in her Nissan Sentra as the air conditioning blasts her face is safer than driving while drowsy.

Marie Eriel Hobro lives in Wahiawa.
Marie Eriel Hobro makes the daily commute — 45 minutes when things are flowing perfectly — from Wahiawa to Honolulu. She naps in a Kaimuki parking lot before braving the evening traffic. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

After years of commuting on Oahu, where she grew up, and in Los Angeles, where she attended college, Hobro knows first hand how important it is to be fully alert at the onset of a long drive.

“I’ve had the highway shut down for me because my tires blew up,” she recounts. “My car filled with ants once. My brakes stopped working in the middle of the highway. I’ve been the person that’s the reason the whole highway is held up.”

In Wahiawa, Hobro shares a three-bedroom apartment with her parents, two younger siblings and dog. She sleeps in the living room on a bed concealed by a curtain because there aren’t enough bedrooms to go around. But she loves coming home at night to her family in the city where she was raised.

Hobro’s siblings have their own battles with traffic. Her brother, a student at the University of Hawaii Manoa, rises at 5 a.m. to catch the bus to campus. Her sister plans to enroll at UH in a couple of years and is poised for a similar pre-dawn routine.

Hobro’s parents are discussing a move closer to Honolulu to ease their children’s commute, allowing more time for leisure, family dinners and sleep.

“I don’t want to leave that area because that’s where we’re from,” Hobro said. “But my parents don’t want my siblings to wake up at five in the morning every day just so that they can go to school.”

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