In November, engineering students at Farrington High School partnered with local officials to paint colorful curb extensions near their Kalihi campus, making those areas more walkable with what’s known as a quick-build project.
Those bright, blue-green “bulb-outs” make it easier to cross busy streets in a neighborhood that’s historically been prone to car-on-pedestrian crashes.
The project was relatively cheap — about $50,000 in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education dollars compared to the millions spent on heavier road projects that typically lead to more cars. If the designs fall out of favor, they can be swiftly removed. They’re a modest, isolated safety upgrade on an island with the ideal climate for more walking and biking.
Four months after the Kalihi curbs were redone, the COVID-19 pandemic hit Hawaii.
There’s been a surge of residents walking and biking to get out of the house ever since, with many locals seeming to suddenly discover the joys of exercise.
But this pandemic-era trend is happening on an island where the streets cater far more to cars than to foot and bicycle traffic. People outside, meanwhile, need more space to stay physically distant as they pass by.
Maybe it’s time to usher in Honolulu’s era of the quick build.
Simple and easy fixes — akin to the Kalihi safety project — could accommodate the island’s new walking and biking trend and help keep it going at a time when vehicle travel counts remain down.
“We have a lot of public space in roads and right now the cars aren’t there, generally speaking — but pedestrians are,” said Katie Rooney, transportation director for the Ulupono Initiative. “It seems perfectly reasonable during this time to say, well, should we be providing more of that space for that purpose?”
The state’s Department of Health has at least six quick build projects in the works across Hawaii, including two on Oahu. Each of those projects should cost less than $50,000, said CJ Johnson, physical activity program coordinator at the agency. The locations have yet to be determined, but the agency hopes to work with the counties to build in vulnerable areas, he said.
The pandemic has spurred “profound changes to Hawaii’s travel and activity patterns, highlighting just how much public space and resources are dedicated to the speed and convenience of automobiles at the expense of healthy, safe and active transportation,” Johnson said in an email Friday.
“Quick build is a proven strategy for transforming streets to prioritize bicycling, walking and personal mobility aids” — wheelchairs and motorized scooters.
The city’s transportation department says it doesn’t have any official counts on how much pedestrian and bicycle traffic has grown since the pandemic hit.
Nonetheless, the demand for more use of the public road space for those modes appears to be growing. On the first of four “Open Street Sundays” that took place on Kalakaua Avenue in June, the city counted 628 pedestrians and 691 cyclists — or people riding some other wheels — in a 30-minute period.
The four, limited Sunday events largely mimic the “slow streets” or “open streets” initiatives that have taken off in at least 100 cities elsewhere since COVID-19 hit. Generally, the goal is to give residents stuck at home the space they need to safely exercise outdoors, keeping their distance from one another by moving off curbs and sidewalks.
In Seattle, the temporary road conversions were popular enough that some of them will become permanent.
That may be extreme for Honolulu, but the least local officials can do is better accommodate the growing walking and biking demand.
The island is missing nearly 800 miles of sidewalk, and officials estimate it would cost more than $1 billion to build them all. The city has been removing crosswalks to discourage pedestrians from traversing certain areas instead of working to calm the traffic in those spots.
Quick-build projects could help fix that.
With their cheap and readily available materials, “these projects are affordable, dynamic, and collaborative by nature,” Johnson said. Other notable quick-builds in town include the curb bulb-outs at Isenberg and South King streets.
To be sure, quick builds and other so-called “complete streets” projects often see vocal community pushback. The King Street protected bicycle lane generated enormous controversy when it was installed in late 2014.
Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell once said his office heard more criticism of the bike lane than the city’s multibillion-dollar rail project, whose costs have skyrocketed.
The city continues to install protected bike lanes, including a new spur on Pensacola Avenue that will connect with King Street.
In 2017, some Chinatown community members protested a city bulb-out project, similar to the Kalihi design, saying it was an eyesore and impeded business deliveries. Later, a local artist worked to help them blend in better with the neighborhood’s aesthetic and character. The city last week said it’s moving forward on “upgrades” to the bulb-outs on Pauahi Street in that area.
“Our hope is that, over the coming months and years, we can work with counties and communities to develop quick build best practices,” Johnson said in his email, to “foster healthier, safer and more inclusive mobility options for all of Hawaii.”
COVID-19 has a lot more Oahu residents enjoying the outdoors. The Era of the Quick Build could keep it that way.
“We have lots of people … who are walking downtown, who are biking downtown,” Rooney said. “And there’s not enough space for a lot of them. That space isn’t being used by cars right now, so why can’t it be appropriated?”
Officials could redesign the street for six months or so, she said, then reassess. The advantage is the flexibility.
“If I’m wrong, we can change it back next year,” she added.
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