After a brief trip to Japan, I’m back in Honolulu – walking, bicycling and riding TheBus.

The contrast between my public transportation experience in Japan and Honolulu has me thinking about rail and what makes a public transportation system desirable.

And, more importantly, it has me wondering if Honolulu’s rail system will be able to emulate the success of those in Japan and other Asian cities.

That success will require more than reliability and speed.

The best rail systems nest within a larger ecosystem of commercial and residential space. They succeed in part due to harmony with this ecosystem, but also because of an emphasis on safety, hygiene and convenience.

Tokyo: Crowds hurry at Tokyo Shibuya station in Japan. With 2.4 million passengers on a weekday, it is the 4th-busiest commuter rail station in Japan.

Commuters make their way through the Tokyo Shibuya rail station in Tokyo.

Getty Images

Can Honolulu design a system where stations become destinations and not mere way stations between home and work?

The city’s transit-oriented development team is working to answer this question.

TOD focuses on placing residences, workplaces and shopping within easy walking distance of major transit stops. It’s a model that’s working in many Asian cities.

Refashioning Whole Areas

If you don’t ride TheBus, you may have never visited the transit centers scattered throughout Honolulu. But every day, thousands of people pass through favorites such as Alapai Transit Center and Kalihi Transit Center.

Of course, there’s no reason for non-commuters to visit these places. Many are in the middle of nowhere, by design, to accommodate the buses that whirl around.

But rail stations are another story; they perform best when integrated into their communities. In this regard, we can learn a lot by looking east.

Hong Kong, Singapore and Seoul figure prominently in many rankings of the best municipal systems. And the Japanese boast solid systems of their own, with Tokyo and Osaka leading the pack.

In Osaka, transit centers and stations integrate with residential and commercial space.

It’s easy to underestimate how much value a simple convenience store adds to a rail station.

For instance, at major transit points like Umeda and Osaka stations, trains arrive on raised tracks while buses depart at ground level. Some stations connect to lengthy underground walkways.

These walkways contain stores – entire malls connected to public transit.

The walkways connect to nearby commercial centers, and more businesses thrive at street level.

The key to sustaining these businesses are the high-density commercial and residential spaces nearby. Because of the density, businesses stay open late to cater to commuters and locals.

Making destinations of our stations will require the refashioning of surrounding areas. Thus, new residential development should concentrate in these areas. The new residents will support businesses surrounding the stations. This will create a virtuous cycle that doesn’t impinge on undeveloped land.

Residents of these new developments won’t need the cars clogging our streets – they’ll save more and escape the financial struggles faced by many local families.

But this assumes residences are built. To make sure they are, the city needs to relax permitting regulations around stations, allow greater density and building heights, and improve infrastructure. This will encourage developers to create the high-density residential and commercial centers of the future.

But new development won’t be enough.

Waipahu Rail Station HART.

The Waipahu rail station is currently under construction. Honolulu’s line will include 21 stations.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Safety And Hygiene

Many people will avoid public transportation unless it is safe and clean.

In Japan, criminal activity is rare and stations are clean. Strong social norms and strict law enforcement discourage bad behavior.

Surveillance and regular security patrols reduce the incidence of vandalism, violent crime and property theft. And local communities make efforts to keep their stations clean.

I hope our stations and cars won’t be immediately defaced by would-be graffiti artists. It’s unfortunate that one of Honolulu’s trains was tagged years before rail’s completion.

If people take pride in their stations from the start, and if local businesses have an incentive to keep stations clean, we can maintain them as attractive public spaces.

Simple amenities help create desirable space. In Japan, ample provision of food, drink and restrooms at stations makes a big difference.

Most stations have vending machines, and many feature a small convenience store.

It’s easy to underestimate how much value a simple convenience store adds to a rail station. Commuters can quickly grab essential goods. Parents can grab snacks for children.

Simple features like this combine to create a transit experience that is efficient and pleasant.

And because the station is the center of a small commercial district, additional food and goods are never more than a few minutes away. Therefore, commuting is more convenient by train than by car.

This motivates ridership, and the cycle feeds itself. As more people ride, the area surrounding the station develops. As the area develops, more people ride.

The station as destination is an attainable goal for Honolulu, though it will require that we translate careful planning into action.

If you build it, they will come. But only if you build it right.

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About the Author

  • Sterling Higa
    Sterling was raised in Nuuanu. He graduated from Roosevelt High School and later earned a master’s degree in education from Harvard University. Sterling now works as a debate coach and lecturer at Hawaii Pacific University. By candlelight, he is finishing his Ph.D. in education at the University of Hawaii Manoa. The author's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Civil Beat.