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Editor’s Note: Civil Beat reporter Marcel Honore’s new transportation column, “Wayfinding,” offers a street-level look at the challenges of getting around Oahu and the neighbor islands. If you want to share your story ideas or experiences, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
This may have been a terrible mistake.
The words flashed through my skull last month as I entered the narrow, 3-mile stretch of Farrington Highway between Kapolei and Waipahu.
Suddenly, I was a sitting duck in a bike helmet. Cars and trucks roared past as I hugged the side of the road. There’s no shoulder there, so they had to veer almost entirely into the oncoming lane to pass me. Several veered back just in time to miss the approaching cars.
Everything felt a split-second from disaster.
Please don’t cause an accident. Please don’t cause an accident.
So began Civil Beat’s recent field experiment to determine just how easy it is to get across Oahu’s southern shore by bicycle.
Some months back, I’d asked the nonprofit Hawaii Bicycling League whether they knew of any brave souls who make the commute from West Oahu into town by bike and if Civil Beat could tag along. They couldn’t come up with a name.
Still, the idea nagged at me.
Rail to Ala Moana is at least seven years away. What if West Oahu drivers, perpetually stuck in traffic on the H1 Freeway, were willing to try an alternative? On this island with near-perfect weather and flat terrain near the coast, how feasible is it to bike toward or all the way into town?
So I decided to put myself in harm’s way and pedal across the shore, including Farrington (which, incidentally, HBL calls a “moderate stress” bike route).
The total route covered just over 18 miles, from downtown Kapolei to Sand Island Access Road in Kalihi Kai. The idea was to see whether it would work either as a full commute or for riders looking to travel just part of the way.
I biked all but two of those miles: In Waipahu, we briefly stopped the ride on Farrington and drove to a nearby park to film at a future bike route. In Aiea, where the Pearl Harbor Bike Path ends, we drove for about a mile where conditions on Kamehameha Highway were particularly stressful.
I don’t want to sound too discouraging. Overall, I came away feeling that Oahu’s cross-island bike route is on the cusp of working well for all kinds of cyclists.
If not for a few admittedly large trouble spots, even the casual riders who don’t wear spandex could cruise anywhere between Kapolei and Honolulu.
City officials have made a push in recent years to add more bikeways, but mostly in Honolulu’s urban core. Aiea, Pearl City, Waipahu, Ewa — the rest of the south shore is not yet well connected.
“We sometimes get comments that the bike lanes just end,” Chris Sayers, the city’s bicycle coordinator, said at a public meeting last month. “We’re getting better … but that’s one of the main goals” — to create more connections.
About 1 percent of Oahu commuters get around by bike. It’s hovered at that rate for more than a decade, representing just under 6,000 people, according to U.S. Census data for 2012 to 2016. Several years back, Mayor Kirk Caldwell said he’d consider an increase to 5 percent successful, though that’s a very ambitious goal.
The greatest weather in the world won’t get more commuters on bikes unless there are safe and convenient routes available, planners say.
That road from Farrington into Waipahu is definitely dicey. So is Kamehameha Highway just past the Pearl Harbor visitor center.
The scenic Pearl Harbor Bike Path, meanwhile, is a fun and easy ride. You zip past shoreline homes, parks, urban farm space and wetlands — as well as factories, the future rail operations center and Waiau Power Plant. You get a feel for Central Oahu, in all of its contrasts, that’s impossible to grasp by car.
You also see plenty of abandoned cars.
Unfortunately, the 5-mile path doesn’t connect to other routes on either end. It materializes without any signage just east of Waipahu Depot Street, next to a Honolulu Fire Department maintenance facility, and then abruptly deposits you onto a Kamehameha Highway sidewalk below Aloha Stadium.
It’s a great asset. Without better connectivity, it will remain woefully underused.
A bit further east, Shimmick/Traylor/Granite workers are building the rail guideway into Kamehameha as the road approaches the airport. I don’t think I’ve ever been happy before to encounter road work. The construction slowed the traffic while I biked along.
As Kamehameha ended I faced two exciting options: 1) pedal into the left hand lane, as cars whiz by, in order to turn onto Radford Drive and stay on the bike route, or 2) get on the freeway?!
Wasn’t fun, but I opted to take the left at Radford.
Once safely past, there’s a friendly “Nimitz Viaduct Path” that runs 3.5 miles or so along Bougainville Drive and Nimitz Highway below the Airport Viaduct. But any cyclists looking to push beyond that path and into Kalihi have to run the gauntlet.
Just past the viaduct, Nimitz suddenly converts into what felt like a freeway offramp as I pedaled for about a mile past Keehi Lagoon.
I wanted to get past this stretch to Sand Island Access Road as quickly as possible. A passing truck driver startled me with his horn — seemingly equal parts surprised and annoyed to encounter a cyclist there. HBL calls this spot a “high-stress connection.”
I wholeheartedly agree.
From that point, there’s a lane along Nimitz that cyclists can take farther into town and connect to Honolulu’s growing urban network of bike routes.
Some fixes are in the works to better connect Oahu’s bikeways, however.
One of the most promising is the state’s planned $11.5 million extension of the Leeward Bike Path, which will directly connect bike routes across Ewa Beach to the Pearl Harbor Bike Path.
The project includes a new bikeway that will hug the West Loch shore, plus a bridge that crosses Waikele Stream and leads to the Pearl Harbor path. Once it’s done, riders coming from Ewa Beach, including anyone who uses the existing bike path along Fort Weaver Road, will have their own route all the way to Aloha Stadium.
Still, Ewa Beach might be too far south and out of the way for cyclists coming from Makakilo and Kapolei. For them, braving Farrington would still be the most direct path into town.
Upgrades to that narrow highway aren’t arriving very soon, however. City officials say the design phase to widen the road there won’t happen until 2020.
Closer to town, Oahu’s 2018 bike plan update calls for extending the Pearl Harbor Bike Path to Arizona Memorial Place, as well as to install a protected bike lane along Salt Lake Boulevard to Puuloa Road.
Overall, the plan update includes nearly 190 miles of so-called “Priority 1” projects that the city aims to complete in the next five years.
These and other road hacks could help eliminate the drama described above. More importantly, it could open up new commuting possibilities for residents across Oahu, not just those living in town.
“We’re getting there,” Sayers said at the recent bike plan meeting. “We’re catching up.”
Anyone out there crazy enough to currently commute from Kapolei, Ewa Beach, or even farther west into town by bike — what did I miss?
For a future column, we’d also like to get your insights about being a pedestrian on Oahu. If you’re interested in sharing your experiences, please fill out the form below. We won’t publish any of your stories without your permission.
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