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 mhonore@civilbeat.org

Let’s face it: Oahu has too many cars — far more than our roads can handle.

It’s not just the daily grind on the H-1 Freeway, that mother of all commutes that burns hours of our lives as we fight through traffic.

It’s King Street. It’s Nimitz Highway. It’s Moanalua Road. It’s all those small arterials, basically glorified alleyways that see heavy vehicle use.

We’re saturated. Cars pour out of everywhere.

Sure, plenty of other cities are just as dense or more dense than Honolulu. But those places aren’t built on a tiny island surrounded by vast ocean with little room to grow. Every year, we cram more cars and trucks on an extremely limited road system.

That’s been my gut feeling at least, as a driver and a cyclist who’s navigated Oahu’s roadways over the past six years.

Turns out, the state’s historical data backs that up.

Between 1995 and 2017, Oahu added 190 miles of roadway to its street and highway grid, according to state research. That includes state, city and private roads.

During the same time, however, the state saw 190,000 more vehicles registered to use those Oahu roads, according to the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism — a 31 percent increase. The total number of vehicles is about 792,000 now.

Oahu’s population, by contrast, increased during that time by only about 12 percent.

Furthermore, the island’s roads absorbed 1.6 billion more vehicle miles traveled in 2017 than they did in 1995.

So yes: Traffic is getting worse. And no: We haven’t been keeping up with the demand. Our system is way over capacity.

“When we start looking at this demand that we have right now, there’s no way that we fill it. No way,” Ed Sniffen, the Hawaii Department of Transportation’s deputy director for highways, said in his Punchbowl Street office Thursday.

The North Shore’s increasingly congested streets, which can’t keep up with the growing number of cars on the road, make residents wary of development.

Anthony Quintano/ Civil Beat

For the past several years, DOT officials have focused on the more inexpensive, “low-hanging fruit” fixes to help Oahu’s traffic flow at least somewhat faster. They’ve launched contraflow lanes in Nanakuli and on the Windward side’s Kahekili Highway. They’ve re-striped lanes to add more capacity on the H-1 in Central Oahu and in town.

The DOT does have one big-ticket project in the works – an estimated $180 million effort to add an eastbound lane on the H-1 between the Waiawa and Halawa interchanges, where the H-1 sees some of the heaviest traffic.

Panos Prevedouros, who chairs the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Civil Engineering Department, further suggested tolls and pricing schemes to discourage drivers from using the roads when they don’t have to.

Ultimately the only way to meet the island’s traffic demands is to change them altogether, Sniffen said.

Schools such as UH and local employers need to stagger start times for their students and workers. Residents should also have flexibility to work and study at offices closer to home where possible, instead of heading all the way into town.

It’s a complex discussion for Oahu to have, Sniffen acknowledged.

Given our worsening traffic, I’d say it’s an urgent one.

“When we start looking at this demand (on roads) that we have right now, there’s no way that we fill it. No way.” — Ed Sniffen, Hawaii Department of Transportation deputy director for highways

David Rolf, the executive director of the Hawaii Automobile Dealers Association, expects sales for new cars at the state’s 70 dealerships to remain relatively flat over the next 20 years. Sales statewide should hover at around 50,000 annually, and the state should see about 1 million privately owned vehicles in the years ahead, he said.

“You have all the movement toward transit, toward biking more, walking, toward living where you work,” Rolf said Tuesday. “When you factor that whole thing together, the cars aren’t going to rise with the population growth. The cars are going to remain relatively stable. That’s because people are moving toward these other ways of commuting.”

Officials say Honolulu’s $9.3 billion elevated rail project will give commuters a reliable trip into town and transform neighborhoods along the line, but it’s not expected to cure congestion on H-1 or ultimately curb the demand for more cars. 

I wonder when we’ll reach the breaking point, where adding more cars and vehicle trips on Oahu simply becomes untenable.

“Any time you start looking at that capacity increase, especially in a place like this, we either have to go up, or we’ve got to go down,” Sniffen said, referring to double-decking the H-1 or tunneling below ground.

A double-decking project could cost around $1 billion, he added.

“Changing the culture — our car-centric view of Hawaii is the big thing,” Sniffen said Thursday. “Making sure that we get to that point where we start seeing transportation differently matters.”

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