In 2005, Honolulu was “the best city in the world.” That’s according to the mayor’s preface to the department and agency report the City and County of Honolulu issues annually.

In it he lauds the dedicated city employees who “have enabled me to have a successful and productive first year as Honolulu’s Mayor.” On the document’s cover he is pictured performing a duet at his inauguration.

The report is over 300 pages in length. Viewed from the harsh reality of 2019, it seems an oddly optimistic collection of short-term measures designed to preserve the status quo. Visions for Honolulu’s long-term future are few, perhaps because it seemed so bright.

Derivations of the word “homeless” appear only 24 times. “Rail” surfaces briefly in a brief section outlining mass transit aspirations. Honolulu was a less fractious and economically divided place in 2005, and its praises were easier to sing.

In the 2018 version of the report, which features a rainbow above Honolulu Hale and no karaoke photos, “addressing homelessness and affordable housing” has been elevated to one of the current mayor’s six priorities. Another has been in place since 2013: “building rail better.”

Honolulu’s next mayor could be elected as early as August of 2020. Candidate filing will begin in February. The consideration of candidates should begin with changing the paradigm of how we discuss the city’s future.

Honolulu faces a collection of problems bordering on intractable, many of which were less prevalent in Honolulu’s halcyon past. Each of the issues has both short- and long-term implications; most are interrelated, and none can be addressed with a patchwork approach.

Traffic along Beretania Street near Punchbowl Street2.

Traffic has only worsened since 2005.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In the years since the Great Recession homelessness has become a greater problem across the nation, yet it seems more obvious and pervasive here. Its existence can’t be ignored. The new baseline is that Honolulu residents and businesses must attempt to exist around homelessness and its effects.

Traffic congestion is another ugly reality of life in Honolulu. When population and vehicle count growth aren’t accompanied by new roads or, more sensibly, viable alternatives to individual ownership of vehicles, the result will be increased congestion. Hawaii has added more people than roads; more vehicles on roads built for a previous era is an irreversible recipe for congestion and resident frustration.

Poor road conditions are a recurring concern in annual reports, despite the city’s enhanced efforts to rectify them. In 1970, there were just over 400,000 registered motor vehicles in Hawaii. By 2017 the number had tripled. More cars and more use mean more damage to road surfaces no matter how much money is devoted to repaving projects.

Homeless Street Dwellers tents along Isenberg Street in Moiliili with Manoa as a backdrop.

Homelessness also has increased over the years.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Our high cost of living is part of the baseline. Terming it a “Hawaii premium” or the “price of paradise” may work as a marketing tool, but does little for families unable to afford to live here, as the recent report of continuing Honolulu population decline in 2018 makes clear.

While Honolulu’s efforts to recognize and address the issue of climate change deserve praise, it too is part of the daunting reality the state faces as it considers its future.

Land use is at the heart of the challenges facing Honolulu; moving out of the way of sea level rise means radically transforming communities. In addition to being hugely expensive, rerouting the roads that ring the island will mean uprooting communities that have grown around them. Honolulu’s new baseline includes community vulnerability and the threat faced by areas at the center of local economic activity.

“Traffic congestion is another ugly reality of life in Honolulu.”

Homelessness is a product of many factors, so incentivizing the creation of affordable housing, assuring adequate mental health care capacity, reducing the amount of vacant housing, and creating jobs that pay workers enough to live here all need to be part of the same conversation.

Likewise, potholes and congestion both result from road use, so encouraging multimodal transportation options has to be part of the solution.

Success and productivity aren’t only measured by how Honolulu’s problems can be kept from growing in scale, but by our ability to chart a correct and viable direction. Addressing ongoing and future challenges isn’t meant to be easy. It is also why we elect leaders.

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Column lengths should be no more than 800 words and we need a photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to The opinions and information expressed in Community Voices are solely those of the authors and not Civil Beat.

About the Author