Here’s the good news for Honolulu according to Jeff Speck, one of the country’s most renowned city planners. Hawaii’s crowded capital city is also among the nation’s most walkable. It’s even comparable to Seattle or San Francisco.

“The feeling you get there, not just from the weather but compared to other American cities — it’s definitely on par with the best walkable cities on the West Coast,” Speck said in an interview with Civil Beat from Boston last week.

That’s high praise from the self-described “walkability advocate” and author of 2012’s “Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step At a Time.”  But it’s not all rosy, as Speck notes and anyone who has to deal with Oahu’s lengthy car trips and crushing traffic can attest.

“The other thing I do remember … is that your highways, and your suburban sprawl are as bad as anywhere,” he said.

Speck, who was last in Honolulu about seven years ago, returns today for a 6 p.m. event at the Neil S. Blaisdell Center, where he’ll discuss transit and better urban design.

Jeff Speck will discuss urban mobility and walkability Monday at the Neil S. Blaisdell Center. Courtesy of the Honolulu Department of Transportation Services

The event is sponsored by the city, the state Senate’s Housing Committee, the Department of Health and AARP. It’s free and open to the public and will take place at the Pikake Ballroom.

Speck is a well-known advocate for curbing the nation’s dependence on automobile use, citing the benefits to personal health and the environment, among others. He promotes urban planning and policies that would allow that to happen.

Ahead of his talk today, Civil Beat spoke with Speck at length about the challenges facing Oahu — a mostly dense urban island whose residents have few options besides their cars to get around. Here are some highlights from the interview, which covered a wide range of topics:

CB: We’re still very heavily car dependent here. There’s a dense urban core, but there are also thousands of families living on the west side of the island and the jobs are on the east side. Rail transit is years away. Do you have any suggestions on what we can do in the mean time to make travel and commuting easier?

JS: It’s a question of political will, which often isn’t present in the United States, but in other countries we see highways having lanes dedicated to BRT (bus rapid transit). You see it in Bogota, you see it in Brazil, you see it in Mexico City. What makes BRT ‘R’ (rapid) is a dedicated lane where they’re not fighting against traffic, and a bus that’s sitting in traffic with stalled cars offers no advantage.

CB: Parking in Honolulu remains sacrosanct. The best thing about the new Whole Foods in town, for some, was the new free parking that came with it. But people don’t have many other transportation options except to use their cars, so is there a way to try to reduce the dependency on parking?

JS: Beyond a certain point it’s not practical or fair or expedient to eliminate parking if there’s no alternative. It has to be understood as a multi-pronged strategy to get people to move in different ways.

Have you heard of (UCLA urban planning professor) Donald Shoup? If you were to ask Donald Shoup what’s the No. 1 thing to understand about parking … it’s that you need to allow the market to function for people to make the proper choices. And the way to get the market for any good to function is to price it relative to demand.

Whole Foods Kakaako with empty chairs out front with reflection of the high rises/condominiums.
Despite local officials’ efforts to reduce the need for automobile trips, Oahu residents continue to heavily depend on cars and parking, such as the free parking at the new Whole Foods in Kakaako. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The price for parking, particularly municipal parking on city streets and city lots, needs to reflect the value that that parking provides — and how much people are willing to pay for it.

If you don’t price it right then there’s no parking available and the system doesn’t work, and a huge amount of vehicle miles traveled actually are people circling for parking spots that they can’t find.

CB: Honolulu’s first major bike share system, Biki, has been a huge success. But the City Council is now worried that the public-private partnership deal that launched the system was too lucrative, and that the city should not have sacrificed for free the 30 or so city parking spaces needed to help install docking stations. Is it better to have a single bike share operator, like the city has now, or should the city encourage more competition among multiple major bike shares?

I think there’s much greater risk of disarray and confusion than there is risk of monopoly in this case. You should think of bike share as a public utility, as a form of transit that needs subsidy like any other form of transportation. The more institutional it is, the more likely it is going to be effective. You’re losing a tiny percentage (of parking). That clearly strikes me as “bike-lash” — a bike backlash.

BIKI bike sstand on Mililani Street, downtown Honolulu near the Post office.
Honolulu’s Biki bike share has been enormously successful but its deal to operate is under scrutiny. City planner Jeff Speck argues that city leaders should treat the system as another form of transit and a benefit to community health. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

I do tell cities to think of it as transit, to think of it as an investment in the health of your community. Each bike is one fewer car on the street.

CB: Honolulu passed one of the nation’s first distracted-walking laws where pedestrians can be cited for texting while crossing the street. Do you think such pedestrian-focused laws are helpful or send the wrong message?

JS: I wasn’t aware of that. That’s really pathetic. I think this pedestrian blaming has to stop. The risk a pedestrian creates by walking distractedly is only to themselves and quite limited. The risk a distracted driver presents while operating two tons of heavy machinery is a much better use of our laws and our law enforcement’s focus.

If there’s a real interest in getting safety we need to look at the people who are the threat and not the people who are threatened and frankly it just speaks to a misunderstanding of how true safety works, to focus on the victims.

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