Ninety-two hours. That’s how much time the average Honolulu resident spends in traffic each year. What else could you do with that time?

April Estrellon/Civil Beat

Hawaii mayors know everyone’s got better things to do than sit in traffic. That’s why they just asked the state to study a solution that cities across the country are considering: de-congestion pricing (another name for congestion pricing). By charging for driving on the busiest roads during the busiest hours, the policy could speed up traffic and raise the funds needed to speed up bus service too.

As someone who grew up in Honolulu and returns frequently, and professionally helps cities address transportation challenges, I was delighted — and impressed — to see Hawaii’s mayors join local leaders across the country in exploring this concept.

Of course, you don’t have to work in transportation to notice this problem: every year, Honolulu traffic gets worse. As a kid, I took TheBus to school in about 40 minutes; that’s now about 70 minutes in today’s traffic.

It goes beyond the frustration of slow trips. All this driving is polluting the air and contributing to the climate crisis, which is already bringing rain bombs, beach loss, and more.

Stockholm saw a 45% reduction in childhood asthma, thanks to cleaner air through de-congestion pricing.

Flickr: edward stojakovic

From my work on the American Cities Climate Challenge, a two-year acceleration program to help 25 cities — including Honolulu — tackle climate change, I know cities across the country are also facing impassable traffic and impacts of a worsening climate. Climate Challenge mayors, including Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, are committed to smart solutions to reduce the energy we use in buildings and in transportation.

Among these solutions is de-congestion pricing. While it’s still a new concept for many in the United States, Stockholm implemented the policy in 2007 and London in 2003 — and both got remarkable results.

Stockholm and London saw traffic drop by at least 20%. In London, with 90,000 fewer cars on the streets, buses moved 60% faster. Pollution dropped by 16% in London, and Stockholm saw a 45% reduction in childhood asthma, thanks to cleaner air.

Businesses in London benefited as delivery trucks reached them more reliably. Other cities, like Singapore, have seen similar transformations.

Initial Skepticism

Early on in Stockholm, newspapers wrote editorials against de-congestion pricing. Later, those same papers proclaimed it an overnight success, with pictures showing clogged streets the day before, and clear streets the day after. It’s like smoking in restaurants and bars: people made fun of smoking laws, but now we can’t imagine going back to that pollution.

A Hawaii school friend in London tells me his family doesn’t need a car at all; they get around easily on buses, the subway, and on foot. Thanks to revenue from de-congestion pricing, public transportation has the funding it needs to run reliably and quickly.

Sure, anything called “pricing” sounds unappealing. But even today, as with any giveaway, there’s a price. Whether it’s coffees or malasadas — to get that crazy deal, there’s a line around the block. That happens on Honolulu roads every day.

Roads aren’t really free; they’re expensive to build and maintain.

And everyone pays the price: the 92 hours lost in traffic, the pollution, the asthma.

Roads aren’t really free; they’re expensive to build and maintain. Roads are heavily subsidized, and that free ride goes to the people who can afford a car, insurance, and so on.

A lot of people can’t afford cars. Many seniors and people with disabilities cannot drive. Kids can’t drive. The system is already unfair to the folks who have the hardest time getting around. We see this with the epidemic of pedestrian deaths: the most vulnerable are most at risk.

The study the mayors requested can help find solutions. How do we make our streets work for everyone, from seniors to keiki? How do we make sure our transportation supports clean air and a livable future?

These are brave questions for mayors to ask; the solutions are worth taking as seriously as we take our time, our aina, and our lives.

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