That Honolulu had some of the nation’s worst traffic used to be gospel in Hawaii.

National studies backed it up. One of the most quoted sources for that among local media was INRIX, the renowned Kirkland, Washington-based traffic research firm.

“Honolulu ranked worst in country for traffic,” the Hawaii News Now headline declared in 2012, based on INRIX’s annual Global Traffic Scorecard report. “It’s more than Los Angeles, New York or San Francisco.”

The following year, Honolulu slid to the No. 2 spot, trading places with Los Angeles. INRIX found that Honolulu drivers lost 50 hours a year in traffic compared to LA drivers’ 59 lost hours. That’s according to this 2013 Honolulu Star-Advertiser story from a reporter named … Marcel Honore.

No. 2 is still pretty impressive — or notorious, depending on how you look at it.

Turns out, however, that Honolulu’s outsized place in the national traffic pantheon may have been overstated.

In subsequent years, Honolulu’s INRIX ranking started to slip. In 2016 it dropped to 10th. In 2018, it sank to 19th. In 2019, it gained a spot, back up to 18th. (Good job, guys!)

Then, this year, Honolulu nose-dived — all the way down to 81st place in the U.S.

What happened? Did traffic really improve that substantially on Oahu?

H1 Freeway Westbound Traffic.
Traffic inches along this past August during the afternoon westbound commute on the H-1 freeway. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Before all you west side and Windward commuters call for my head: No, traffic on the island did not improve. Outside of the COVID-19 conditions it’s been just as awful as ever. Full stop.

“It’s not necessarily that Honolulu’s congestion is getting better. It’s that every year we’ve been able to expand what it is we’re measuring, and the quality at which we’re measuring in,” said Trevor Reed, an INRIX transportation analyst.

In other words, they’ve gradually added more streets and arteries into their data set, providing a better sense of what’s going on. In 2012, they were limited to the major thoroughfares like the H-1 freeway, which helped slingshot Honolulu to the top of the list.

Now, they analyze the 200 most heavily used routes in a metro area, Reed said. “Now, we are capturing everything.”

Starting last year, INRIX also overhauled its scorecard formula, he added. The firm began analyzing the multiple major commute destinations within a city, instead of just plotting the commutes into its central business district.

The switch offers a more detailed and accurate picture of the commutes across the U.S., Reed said. “Over the last two years, that’s really been a huge transformation as far as what Scorecard is doing and how much detail it is,” he said.

In Honolulu, INRIX found two areas with the highest trip concentrations, which it mapped here:

INRIX Traffic
The traffic research firm INRIX has found the areas shaded in red and blue to be the largest commuter destinations on Oahu. INRIX

The red area, dubbed “0,” stretches roughly from Salt Lake to Chinatown. About 30% of the Oahu commutes end in that zone, and it takes about 20% longer to get there during rush hour, Reed said.

The blue area, dubbed “1,” roughly stretches from McCully to Kahala and includes Waikiki, a key economic engine in normal times. About 28% of all commutes go there, and it usually takes 30% longer to get there during rush hour, Reed said.

INRIX is applying this approach everywhere, and as a result the nation’s largest cities are surging back to the top of the rankings while Honolulu plunges.

The H-1 remains a notorious choke point, Reed acknowledged. Still, it barely registers in INRIX’s latest rankings of the nation’s most congested roads because that formula heavily weighs traffic volumes. Mid-sized Honolulu no longer competes with heavyweights such as Los Angeles or New York.

Still In The Lead For Mid-Sized Cities

To be sure, Honolulu still sees high rankings in other studies for its traffic congestion.

It’s fourth in the nation under the Texas A&M Transportation Institute’s “travel time index,” which measures the difference between trips taken during rush hour and the rest of the day.

Hawaii’s capital city also ranked worst in congestion among all medium-sized U.S. cities with between 500,000 and 1 million people, under the 2019 Texas A&M Urban Mobility Report.

You’ll still hear the words “Honolulu” and “nation’s worst traffic” paired together in conversation. But not much has been said about Honolulu’s fall from grace — or notoriety? — in the INRIX national traffic rankings.

When those more headline-grabbing rankings came out nearly a decade ago, they were used to support Honolulu’s controversial rail project at a time when construction was not as far along, and the system faced a more uncertain future.

But the need for rail to help ease traffic congestion has not fallen alongside the rankings, said Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation spokesman Bill Brennan.

“It was true at that time. It’s not like it was something that somebody made up. It was a study, and that’s fine,” he said of the earlier INRIX scorecards. “People in this city still spend too much time in their cars. Only the ranking has changed.”

Hopefully Honolulu can manage to fall further in the rankings, with public and private employees given more flexible work options, once the COVID-19 crisis ends.

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