Life changed on Kaai Street in Aina Haina after a pedestrian was killed near homes there a few years ago.
To make the streets safer, the state removed the crosswalk across busy Kalanianaole Highway and the city moved its bus stops. Now it’s harder to get to the beach, harder to catch the bus and more practical to drive, especially for elderly residents who might otherwise walk or use public transportation.
Lillian Yoneda, 88, a retired bank administrator, dreads the longer walk to and from the bus stop now that she no longer drives.
Jaimie Kinard, 38, a city employee, said she sometimes jaywalks to get across quickly.
Ruth Tagawa, 80, a retired teacher who uses a walker, now drives routinely because it is unsafe to try to cross the highway.
“I tell my dog, ‘We’re not going to cross now,’” said Tagawa.
The new bus stops are actually more dangerous than they were before, longtime residents say.
The woman who died, Cynthia Timtim Soneda, was a beloved physician at Kaiser Permanente who was run over while jogging on Kalanianaole Highway one morning in June 2015. She was struck and killed near Wailupe Beach Park, which is located across the highway and a little west of Kaai Street.
Kalanianaole Highway is a particularly dangerous road for pedestrians. The speed limit is 35 mph, but it is also an extension of the H-1 freeway and some of the 80,000 motorists who drive through the residential neighborhoods there each day treat it more like a racetrack.
For residents in the neighborhoods on both sides, the highway has become a formidable barrier blocking movement between the hilly slopes of Aina Haina and the ocean.
In the aftermath of Soneda’s death, the state Department of Transportation decided to remove two crosswalks that lacked traffic lights on the highway, including the one at Kaai. Without traffic lights, motorists are less likely to see pedestrians.
In collaboration with the city, the DOT took out the closest bus stops, too, because of fears that people would cross at dangerous locations to get to them. Three nearby bus stops were eliminated and two located at Kaai Street were relocated farther east, to improvised stops near Wailupe Circle, about one-fifth of a mile away.
These changes, which affected about 80 homes, caught Kaai Street residents by surprise because many were unaware that the issue was under consideration by the city, the state and the neighborhood board.
“One day the bus stop just disappeared,” said Yoneda, who has lived on the same street since 1949.
An improvised bus stop on the Kalanianaole Highway in Aina Haina near
The plan to remove the crosswalk and relocate the bus stops had actually been a subject of discussion at the Kuliouou/Kalani Iki Neighborhood Board since Oct. 6, 2016, when a pair of officials — one from the state and one from the city — unveiled it as a proposal under consideration.
They presented it to that particular board because its jurisdiction includes the area in question. The district extends more than 4 miles along Kalanianaole Highway from Kalaniki Street to Kuliouou Street, from the edge of Waialae to the edge of Hawaii Kai. It includes both hillside and oceanside communities.
In 2016 and 2017, as pedestrian fatalities increased in the islands, the DOT began to focus on crosswalks without traffic signals throughout Oahu as a particular risk. Transit officials evaluated 35 crosswalks for relocation, closure or traffic signal installation, according to the state’s Highway Safety Annual Report.
It’s a tricky business. In Oahu’s first pedestrian fatality of this year Jan. 7, Maqbul ur-Rahman, 86, was hit while crossing Hawaii Kai Drive about 100 feet from where the city had mistakenly removed a crosswalk months earlier, the Associated Press reported.
In the aftermath of Soneda’s 2015 death, three crosswalks in Aina Haina were affected, including Kaai, another mid-block crosswalk and nearby Waa Street. Kaai and the mid-block crossing were eliminated. Waa Street will get a traffic light, which will allow its crosswalk to remain in place.
At the meeting in October 2016, DOT official Bryan Kimura said few people would be adversely affected by closing the Kaai Street crosswalk and bus stops. He said the state had conducted a 12-hour observation of the Kaai crosswalk, and found usage was “very low.”
Only 20 people, he reported, got on or off the bus at Kaai Street during that period.
Many board members, while concerned about Soneda’s death and eager to find ways to improve pedestrian safety, reacted with skepticism to the closings proposed by the city and state, according to an archived video of the meeting, and questioned whether such an extreme response was needed.
Sam Slom, a former Republican state senator who represented the area at the time, recalled his impression that the governmental process was “very short-sighted,” given that so many elderly people rely on public transportation and would face hardships walking longer distances.
“It was hasty, not substantiated and poor decision-making. All three,” Slom told Civil Beat.
Pedestrians on King Street in downtown Honolulu have the luxury of using crosswalks at traffic signals. That’s not always the case elsewhere on Oahu.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
At the board meeting in October 2016, Kimura acknowledged that the closures would cause some pain.
“There’s always heartache when you take away something, especially the bus, and we are trying to balance the safety and mobility of pedestrians … with the accessibility of bus stops,” he told the board.
Board member Sheridan Spangler questioned whether eliminating a crosswalk would simply cause more people to jaywalk.
“People won’t walk way down the way to cross the highway, they will run across — I would — where they can, if you take the crosswalks away,” she told the transit officials.
Kathryn Higa, a board member at the time, said that a town hall meeting should be held to inform people about the plans, so that residents would have a chance to talk about it. (That never happened.)
Board members asked if it would be possible to install pedestrian-activated signals on the highway, but Kimura said it would be too costly because the criteria for considering installation of a signal is 100 pedestrians an hour for a four-hour period — more foot traffic than is common in that area.
Ultimately the state decided to install one at Waa Street but not at the other streets under consideration.
In the end, the neighborhood board tacitly accepted the plan proposed by the state and city transit planners.
“The Board is aware that cross walks and bus stops on K Highway were being moved and removed,” board chair Heather Lum wrote in an email to Civil Beat. “While there was concern when the project was in the planning stages, no residents have expressed concern at any of our recent meetings.”
Even at a traffic signal, a crosswalk is not a force field protecting pedestrians. Here, a car has stopped inside a crosswalk on the Kalanianaole Highway in Aina Haina.
The relocation and condition of the new bus stops has been problematic, too, according to local residents.
Judy Chang, 61, who has lived on Kaai Street all her life and takes the bus daily to her job downtown, said the new bus stops are too close to the highway and lack enough space for buses to pull over safely.
“I think it’s more dangerous where it is,” she said.
Chang also criticized the posts at the new bus stop as “makeshift.”
Twice, she said, the white posts that designate the new bus stops have blown off their stands and fallen over into oncoming traffic.
On a recent weekday, the pole at one of the bus stops was being held upright by sandbags that had torn open, spilling sand over the sidewalk.
Allan Toh, 66, of Waialae, who said he goes everywhere on the bus, was standing at the bus stop waiting for a ride home after a jog to Hawaii Kai. He looked at the improvised bus stop and the sandbags, shaking his head.
“This is pretty bad,” he said, looking at the tight space between the bus stop and the highway. “It gets pretty windy.”
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Kirstin Downey was a reporter for Honolulu Civil Beat. A former Washington Post reporter and author of several books, she splits her time between Hawaii and Washington, D.C. You can reach her by email at email@example.com