Last month, Wayfinding examined TheBus’ worsening slump in ridership, the challenges that Honolulu’s public transit system faces and what might be done to turn those numbers around.

Turns out Civil Beat readers have a lot of thoughts on this. Plenty of you emailed with questions about service or suggestions on how to make things better. You offered so much quality feedback that I opted to reach out to the Department of Transportation Services and go another round with its deputy director, Jon Nouchi.

This time, we discussed many of the issues you raised. Here are some highlights of our conversation last week:

The Rate Commission wants to study what might happen if the city raises the $2.75 single-ride bus fare to $3. Is DTS at all concerned that raising fares will only further decrease ridership?

“We’re always worried. We know every time there’s a fare increase, ridership dips,” Nouchi said. “In that sense, if we raise fares we’re definitely anticipating a further reduction in ridership. Generally in Honolulu we tend to rebound back pretty decently.”

Why are there so many issues tracking the buses on apps? Often approaching buses disappear from riders’ smart phones.

TheBus’ fleet uses a GPS-based automatic vehicle location system, or “AVL,” to transmit where it’s at. It’s the same AVL used since the early 2000s, Nouchi said.

It’s fairly old, and it relies on the radio towers around the city to receive the buses’ location data. Plus, radio coverage is spotty in certain parts of the island, he added.

The Bus Number 1 Kahala Mall bus rolls along South King Street.
TheBus’ Route 1 bus rumbles along South King Street toward Kahala Mall. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

There’s only so much data that can go through those radio channels at once. The system pulls location data from each bus about every minute or 90 seconds.

On fast-moving streets or highways, that interval can make a big difference. When private software apps such as Google Maps or Transit pull that data, it can add another minute to the lag time, according to Nouchi.

“You’re not getting the freshest data,” he said.

It’s not as accurate as it could be, or as it would be if the data was sent directly from each bus via broadband internet. That can lead to issues tracking those buses and predicting when they’ll arrive at a stop.

The city is currently installing mobile routers on each bus for the system’s emerging Holo card-based electronic fare system, Nouchi said.

Eventually, DTS might use those routers to transmit more timely location data as well — so long as the move doesn’t affect the fare system, he added.

“We have been experimenting with that,” he said. “We want to make sure we can test out the fare system and implement that reliably before we pile on.”

But it’ll also be costly to upgrade — it would be like buying a data plan for every bus in the fleet, he said.

When a user sees an approaching bus disappear on a transit app, it probably means that the bus already passed by, Nouchi said.

Conversely, the bus may have gotten so delayed at an earlier stop that it was removed from the queue, he said. In other words, it may have been predicted to arrive in the next couple of minutes, but there’s an accident or some other traffic incident that’s slowing it down, so it disappears.

DTS might hire a company that could improve arrival predictions. Making them more accurate would be “money well spent,” he said.

Can’t we get a better app for TheBus that shows where the buses are in real time on a map, akin to the apps used by Uber and Lyft?

You can actually do that now using Transit, Nouchi said. The app isn’t affiliated with the city, but like other similar apps its free service relies on the city’s transit data feeds.

By the time the full rail system starts running, DTS aims to have in place higher-frequency bus service, where it can scrap the timetables on certain routes altogether and instead just list how frequently a bus passes.

As for TheBus losing ridership to Uber and Lyft: “I don’t see that as a bad thing. If we’re losing a rider to Uber or Lyft, then the commuter has a choice. I know a lot of people who do take Uber and Lyft to a place where they can get transit and then use transit to go the long haul. That’s ideal. That is the direction that we as a government agency are going.”

The Bus stops near Kailua.
City transit officials say they don’t see a real need to have Wi-Fi on buses. But it is in the plans for the Honolulu rail system. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

But are people really hailing an Uber or Lyft ride just to get to a bus stop?

“There are people that do that” in the largely rural areas outside of town, Nouchi said.

Why not add Wi-Fi to each bus?

“I’m not sure what Wi-Fi gets us” considering TheBus’ average trip lengths and the “crowded nature” of the buses, Nouchi said.

But rail is going to have Wi-Fi, right?

“Rail is going to have Wi-Fi. The longest trip people could take on that is 42 minutes,” he said.

It’s much harder to maintain Wi-Fi in an environment where TheBus can go anywhere other than on a fixed route such as rail, Nouchi said.

Basically, the city would be buying a plan for a mobile data router for each bus and letting everyone use it — but it would be hard to have good coverage if you store the router in the front.

“I think we have other issues that we’d like to solve than provide wireless. I think for longer trips that would be an attractor,” but the buses aren’t assigned to the same route each day, Nouchi said.

Can you install more bus shelters and improve the existing facilities at bus stops?

“We generally have a program to install more shelters each year. Shelters are a little bit tricky for us” because often the ideal location is either not city property or doesn’t meet ADA standards. The bench can’t take up the whole shelter — it would need to offer space for someone who can’t use the bench, he said. “There’s a lot of places where we don’t have sidewalks, and we do have bus stops, so I don’t know how we would do that.”

They look for the stops in certain neighborhoods where most people are boarding to determine where to install shelters, Nouchi said.

Are there ways to make people feel safer and more comfortable when riding, while still keeping the system just as available and accessible to the public?

That’s a challenge because the system has to be very careful before denying service.

“I’m not ready to speak on it right at the moment, but we will be proceeding with some potential bills to make transit and its associated facilities a safer place,” both via the Legislature and the Honolulu City Council, he said. The public can expect to see measures on that in the upcoming Legislative session as well as the City Council in the coming months, he added.

King Street car traffic.
City transit officials are looking to create a designated transit lane along King Street next year. Once the rail line starts running, they expect to create more of those lanes to help feed buses more swiftly to rail stations. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

“We have been working a lot with our law enforcement officers and the prosecutor’s office to make sure that if you commit a crime that is interference with the operator of a public transit vehicle, that is actually a felony misdemeanor. It’s not a small deal for people,” Nouchi added.

Right now you can’t bring luggage on board TheBus. Can the buses better accommodate bulky items, such as luggage or carts for shopping?

The rail line will allow for luggage, so TheBus will eventually have to change that, Nouchi said. Right now, carts can be brought on board as long as they’re small enough to fit under the seat or on a rider’s lap.

As work on rail proceeds, DTS is currently looking at bus designs with more space to carry items — but that would also mean less seating, Nouchi said.

When it comes to allowing luggage on buses even if they’re not all designed to accommodate more space, he said, “We’re going to have to flip the switch at some time and people will have to kind of manage that.”

Any update on the proposed transit lane planned for King Street?

The city is still looking to create a special lane for TheBus along King sometime next year as part of Bloomberg American Cities Climate Challenge.

“We want the public to have a good feel as to how they work and how they operate,” Nouchi said. The idea is to eventually add more such lanes that would feed buses more swiftly to future rail stations.

“There’s no sense in us bringing a whole bunch of people to the rail stations only to have the buses get stuck approaching the rail station,” he said.

The proposed King Street transit priority lane would be a first step — “an introduction to how transit lanes operate in the city,” Nouchi said.

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