With its mix of affluent condo towers, mid-rise apartments and single-family homes, Makiki is one of Honolulu’s most diverse neighborhoods.

Roosevelt High School frames it to the west; Punahou School to the east. About a dozen other schools and churches dot the crowded blocks in between. Students, parents with toddlers, and kupuna all regularly stroll the neighborhood.

Instead of a 7-Eleven, Makiki has the Village Market. Instead of a Starbucks, there’s the Sure Shot Cafe.

“It really gets a lot more of the small-town vibe within a dense urban area right than almost anywhere else I’ve seen,” Makiki resident Ian Ross said during a recent walking tour. “That ends up, I think, giving a lot more of a town character to it.”

Nestled in the urban heart of Honolulu, this should easily be one of the city’s most pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods.

Instead, Makiki is an obstacle course.

It reflects the struggles that pedestrians face getting around safely on car-centric Oahu.

Uneven sidewalks abruptly stop mid-block, replaced by grass patches. On Nehoa Street near Punahou, a crumbling asphalt pathway drops perilously into the roadway.

Crosswalks are missing in key spots, including Keeaumoku Street, which often serves as a speedway for cars heading mauka and makai.

“It’s one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in Hawaii and yet we have a real lack of sidewalks,” said Colleen Fox, who’s lived in Makiki for 25 years. “It’s hard to walk around with strollers. It’s hard to navigate in a wheelchair. It’s very difficult to cross the street … even though it’s a neighborhood that’s filled with people, filled with families.”

“It’s not particularly walkable,” Fox said, “and there’s a lot of people that walk around that neighborhood.”

So why is it so hard to walk around in Makiki, of all places? It’s complicated.

In prior decades, Honolulu’s political leaders and transportation planners, like many of their counterparts in other cities, generally failed to give residents the safe and sufficient pedestrian routes they deserve. Instead, they embraced building roadways that moved cars across town as quickly as possible.

The result is an island now overwhelmed by streetscapes that don’t really serve pedestrians despite so many folks on foot in town, and a problem that can only be fixed incrementally.

During a community meeting in April, city Transportation Services officials laid out the challenge with some staggering statistics:

Oahu, they said, is missing 793 miles of sidewalks on local roads. It would cost an estimated $1.15 billion to install them all.

Much of Makiki does have sidewalks — even though they’re in rough shape.

Responding To A Spike In Fatalities

Only recently have city officials started trying to improve conditions for pedestrians. Still, they’ve got a long way to go.

In 2012 the Honolulu City Council passed the “Complete Streets” ordinance, a policy to gradually replace Honolulu’s legacy street designs with more bike- and pedestrian-friendly ones whenever they come up for repairs.

But Complete Streets is a slow, expensive effort — one that’s been limited to isolated projects that have faced strong community pushback, largely from small business owners worried about losing parking and customers.

Pedestrians cross along King Street in downtown Honolulu. 29 jan 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Pedestrians cross King Street in downtown Honolulu. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015

Making Oahu more pedestrian-friendly isn’t just about local roads that are easier to use and more accessible — it’s a matter of safety.

In 2018, 44 pedestrians, including 27 on Oahu, were killed statewide — a jarring spike from the 15 killed the previous year. In recent years Hawaii has led the nation in senior pedestrian deaths per capita.

Last year, more than 6,200 pedestrians were killed nationwide — the largest death toll in three decades. The number has gradually increased, officials say, as more commuters try walking amid an increase in distracted driving and collisions involving sizable SUVs.

Those don’t include accidents that leave pedestrians severely injured, often with struggles they’ll face the rest of their lives.

“Let’s face it, she’s still my daughter but she won’t be the same,” Gerry Arellano, father of Victoria Arellano, told KHON in May. The 17-year-old girl was struck in a Waimano Home Road crosswalk two weeks before her high school graduation, leaving her in critical condition and facing a difficult future.

In February, several weeks after a shocking high-speed crash in Kakaako that killed three pedestrians, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell rolled out a package of quick-fix pedestrian-safety measures.

They included safety flags for pedestrians to wave as they cross at certain intersections, stenciled messages to “look all ways” at dangerous spots and strategically placed signs alerting drivers to watch out for pedestrians.

Still, the city has a heavy lift if it’s to make its streets safer and more accessible. Beside Complete Streets, it hopes to make some progress with its first “Oahu Pedestrian Plan,” now slated to be released this summer.

While the deadly January crash in Kakaako generated a community outcry, most residents accept pedestrian deaths as unavoidable, local safety advocates lament.

“We’ve been desensitized,” Hawaii Bicycling League Co-Director Daniel Alexander said during a Jan. 30 vigil for the crash victims.

“I don’t know how you draw any other conclusion,” Alexander said. “It’s something at some foundational level that we’ve normalized — and I think that we need to break that.”

‘Our Neighborhood Is A Good Lesson’

Makiki’s disjointed sidewalks, meanwhile, are the result of piecemeal maintenance and the city’s evolving standards.

Under Honolulu’s Sidewalk Maintenance Program, property owners are responsible for repairing the sidewalks that abut their properties. Not all properties have to follow the latest sidewalk standards, however.

A lot of the city’s older homes and buildings are grandfathered in, city officials say, and that’s why you often see sidewalks such as those in Makiki stop mid-block to be replaced by grassy patches.

It’s only when those owners seek approvals to make certain improvements on their property that they’re triggered to meet the city’s latest sidewalk standards, said Ross Sasamura, the city’s Department of Facility Maintenance director.

Here are the missing sidewalks in Makiki. To view missing sidewalks in neighborhoods across Oahu, click here.

One way to create consistent, walkable sidewalks would be to form a special improvement district, Sasamura offered.

Owners within a district would pay added fees to fund specific work. To get the process started, owners representing at least a quarter of the total property value in the proposed district have to sign a petition, according to Honolulu city ordinance. Then, the City Council would have to establish the district.

The Waikiki Beach Special Improvement District was created in 2015 to fund beach replenishment in the state’s largest tourist hub.

It’s not clear whether the political will exists to launch such a district to fix sidewalks in Makiki or any other trouble spots.

Meanwhile, pedestrians continue to trip and stumble their way around the community — and hope for the best when they try to cross the street. It’s especially hard on the area’s senior and disabled residents, Ross said.

“I do think our neighborhood is a good lesson for other neighborhoods,” Fox said. “We are definitely a car culture in Oahu. We are making a lot of the same mistakes that mainland cities made a long time ago, and we’re not learning from them.”

Coming up: Join us for a Civil Cafe regarding pedestrian safety Tuesday, June 25, from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at Impact HUB Honolulu. Click here for details.

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