Do we need more parking in downtown Honolulu? In a recent Civil Beat column, Danny de Gracia answers yes.

I disagree. Danny says there’s not enough parking in town. I live and work in downtown Honolulu, and parking is available. However, many parking lots are hidden away.

For instance, the municipal lots in Chinatown have cleverly disguised entrances. And if you’re not familiar with town, it can feel overwhelming to navigate the one-way streets while searching for parking.

You might pull into the most expensive lot just to avoid the hassle of hunting. But, unknown to you, a less expensive option might be just a block away.

Parking Lot with cars aerial.

Honolulu doesn’t need more parking spaces, it needs better planning.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

This is not a supply issue; it’s an allocation issue. And it’s compounded by a simple deficit: There’s no easily accessible, publicly maintained resource directing drivers to available parking.

Yes, the Hawaii Department of Transportation provides links to lists of city and state parking facilities, but these lists are tucked away in an obscure corner of an obscure website.

The state and city lists are clearly not designed with commuters in mind. They’re not optimized for mobile use, and they lack real-time information about stall availability. Moreover, they include only public facilities.

More comprehensive lists exist: Hawaii Business Magazine recently published a guide to parking downtown, and Honolulu Magazine maintains a similar resource for Waikiki. But neither of these provide real-time information about availability.

Drivers are forced to hunt because they don’t know where to find available parking.

Danny wants the government to work with developers to build more parking. But other than his anecdotal frustration, there’s no data in his column proving that there’s a parking shortage.

The solution is not to increase supply; the solution is to better allocate existing stalls. How can we do this?

The least invasive solution would be to create a user-friendly resource with stall availability and rate information for lots in downtown Honolulu and Waikiki.

In Santa Barbara, California, a city website provides drivers with real-time availability and rate information. This reduces the amount of time wasted circling blocks, and it allows visitors to plan ahead and avoid peak congestion. It’s a smart use of technology to solve a real problem.

Before we commit public resources or open the door for private developers, we should explore this option.

Despite my disagreement, I think Danny raises an important question about the future of development in Honolulu.

What Kind Of City Do We Want?

In the long term, we should strive for a city where most people don’t need to drive. Building new parking lots won’t get us there.

I see three ways we can make progress toward this goal.

First, we should decentralize government services and adopt digital solutions.

Danny worries for people who need marriage licenses, birth certificates, and business registration. But in a world with the internet, it’s not clear why people need to come into town to acquire some of these documents. I registered a business recently, and I did it online.

The Legislature is also moving toward online participation in the public policy process. The future is digital, so we should ensure that, where possible, government services are online, accessible and convenient.

Parking lots are the least elegant solution to the problem of poor urban design.

Second, we should prioritize transit-oriented development. In the long term, we should aim to locate residences within a five-minute walk of public transportation and all essential services.

As more people settle in dense residential and commercial communities like Kakaako, fewer will need cars. This will reduce congestion for the people who depend on a vehicle to get around.

Third, we should improve existing public transportation.

Transit-oriented development will proceed quickly once the rail is complete. In the interim, we should address the availability, reliability and cleanliness of TheBus and Handi-Van. Not only would these improvements increase ridership and reduce congestion, but they’d also benefit those who already rely on public transportation.

Ultimately, Danny is correct in his diagnosis of Oahu as “congested and inconvenient.” This is the result of decades of poor urban planning and management.

Parking lots are the least elegant solution to the problem of poor urban design. They trade off against residential and commercial space. They’re not beautiful or productive. And they don’t address the underlying problem: poor allocation of existing space.

Technology can help us better allocate the parking stalls we already have. But long-term planning is necessary to prevent future frustration. Let’s build a future where we don’t need to pave paradise to put up a parking lot.

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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.