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If you’re a casual biker, the Capitol grounds by the bronze statue of Queen Liliuokalani are your only real, safe connection to get between downtown Honolulu and the bustling neighborhoods farther east.
“That part is the conduit,” said Christian Yee, a 39-year-old Aiea native who, until recently, used to commute around town by bike.
But in this not-so-bike-friendly city, where cyclists make up just 1 percent of commuters despite the near-perfect weather, it may soon be illegal to pedal there.
This year, prominent members of the Legislature are pushing to ban cycling on the Capitol mall between Punchbowl and Richards streets, citing pedestrian safety.
When I first heard about the proposed ban, introduced as House Bill 857, I wasn’t all that surprised.
The Capitol mall is a busy spot in this crowded Gathering Place. Pedestrians, cyclists and visitors all commingle near the queen’s statue. Many people stop to pay their respects to Hawaii’s last reigning monarch before the overthrow. Tour groups stop to learn about the queen and take selfies.
The mall space gets even tighter on the Ewa side of the Capitol, where pedestrians and bikers share a pair of narrow paths as wide as sidewalks.
“It is tricky over there,” Yee observed. “I think signage for speed limits might be a good idea in that crowded area.”
Often, the pedestrians on that Ewa side are the same lawmakers currently considering the ban — they use those paths to get downtown during their lunch hour.
Rep. Ty Cullen said he didn’t have legislators in mind when he introduced HB 857. Instead, Cullen said, it sprung from a constituent who approached him after their parents were nearly hit by a cyclist while returning to a car on Richards.
“It was, how do you protect pedestrians that have narrow pathways?” Cullen said in an interview Thursday. “We just want to create more of a safe walking place.”
Pedestrians should have the right to walk safely. But banning cycling along that critical corridor would also hinder local efforts to offer more safe bike routes on Oahu. It would force cyclists either to walk that quarter-mile stretch or take their chances riding in the road on King and Beretania streets.
Local biking and public health advocates oppose HB 857. Nonetheless, it’s gained traction inside the Capitol.
House Majority Leader Della Au Belatti supports it. So does Transportation Committee Chairman Henry Aquino. Just over a week ago, the bill passed unanimously out of Aquino’s committee.
It now awaits a hearing in the Judiciary Committee.
The Oahu Bike Plan does call for more route options nearby. Eventually, the city might extend the controversial King Street protected lane into downtown. But until that happens — if ever — the Capitol mall is it.
“They’ve got to think where would the cyclists go?” Yee said.
There’s no reason that the situation in front of the state Capitol should pit pedestrian safety against biker safety. Both groups should be able to coexist.
Here’s the bigger question: Why was it legislators’ first impulse to ban the bikes when there are other obvious and more constructive ways to address this? Why not work to add or widen the path available instead?
Need a good example? Start with the wide, multi-use path that runs by Honolulu Hale and the Kalanimoku Building, right next door to the Capitol.
Oahu’s bike plan does call for a separated bike path along the Capitol mall. But until that path is installed, Cullen asserted, state leaders should implement the ban for safety reasons.
I asked Honolulu Police Department officials if they knew of any serious collisions in which a cyclist hit a pedestrian at the Capitol in the past three years. They didn’t find any such cases. The state Department of Public Safety, whose sheriff’s deputies patrol the Capitol, couldn’t find any such cases either.
The effort that Cullen, Aquino, Au Belatti and others have put into banning cycling across the Capitol grounds this year would have been better spent on a bill that creates new space for everyone.
Their first instinct should be to expand transportation access, not take it away if the goal is to offer more alternatives to driving on this small, crowded island.
Cullen is vice chairman of the powerful House Finance Committee. Why not work there to make the bike paths happen?
“We should use that space to accommodate pedestrians with a nice promenade and bicyclists with an exclusive area,” Wes Frysztacki, the city’s Department of Transportation Services Director, said while participating in a recent demonstration for pedestrian safety along Ala Moana Boulevard, after three pedestrians were killed by a drunk driver there.
“They should change that law to insert, ‘OK, we want to ban bicycles except for when they have an exclusive facility built for that purpose, and here’s the money to do that.’ Because it wouldn’t be very expensive,” Frysztacki said.
Who knows — maybe the Legislature will come around to a proactive fix by the time HB 857 reaches its final draft. But expanding access should have been their first instinct. It should have been in the first draft. The attitude inside the state Capitol needs to change as we grapple with Oahu’s messy transportation issues.
Yee stopped cycling about nine months ago, he said, when his daughter was born. Now that he’s a father, it’s just not safe enough to commute by bike around Honolulu, he said.
Editor’s Note: Civil Beat reporter Marcel Honore’s 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.
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